Today the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography publishes its first print supplement, a volume containing the lives of more than 800 notable figures from British life who died over the four years 2001-2004. It is ‘supplementary’ to the 60 volumes of the Oxford DNB which were published in September 2004 and which included the biographies of nearly 56,000 prominent people drawn from two millennia of British History. In the post below, ODNB Editor Lawrence Goldman talks about the process of choosing who to include.
It is the Dictionary’s job to record the lives of all those who made national history for good or ill, and not to forget those whose contributions went largely unremarked during their lives. The Oxford DNB, as we often say, is not just a roll call of the great and good – prime ministers, bishops, civil servants and diplomats – but a compendium of all those who shaped national life from rock stars to poets and bare-knuckle fighters (look up one, Bartley Gorman).
I’m often asked how we choose the two hundred or so people whom we add to the Dictionary each year. How is the choice made? By what principles? And where does the buck stop? The process is quite arduous, in fact, involving several stages and much consultation. For us, humankind can be divided into 43 categories, all of them professional and vocational from A for archaeologists to Z for zoologists. C is for classicists; G for geologists; P for politicians; s for soldiers. For each of these categories there are a set of advisors, numbering more than 450 in total, who we consult and who provide us with their expert appreciations of the recently deceased and their judgments of their significance in their respective fields. Advisors must remain anonymous so that their judgment can be given unimpaired, but they number many eminent and well-known figures, leaders in their subjects. With the help of one of our research editors, Alex May, we compare and contrast their views, grateful that in most cases they reach a consensus, and use their advice as our guide. In many cases it is clear who deserves an entry in the Dictionary, but when the going gets technical we are glad to rely on the experts.
Nevertheless there are occasions when the Editor has to make the call. We usually end up with about 220 ‘possibles’ and about fifteen of these will be left out. If the choice is between two explorers or two aviators – two of anything, in fact – it is usually possible to decide on the basis of a close reading of obituaries, memoirs, and the comments of the advisors. At such moments we try to weigh up achievements. But how to choose between the competing claims of figures drawn from different fields? And how to weigh in the balance the national importance of say, an act of great heroism lasting all of 60 seconds that won a serviceman the Victoria Cross, or the steady endeavour of a whole career in public service? At such moments I try to project forward and consider whose contributions will last and still seem relevant a generation from now, and whose achievements will have faded and seem insignificant? To second guess the future, trying to imagine its different values and tastes isn’t easy, especially when one is trying to imagine how the different work of a stained glass painter or a potter will fare over the intervening decades. I often hear in my ear the imagined rebukes of a future Editor roundabout 2050: ‘why the devil did he put him in?’ But I have a way of consoling myself at such moments of self-doubt: even my mistakes, I reason, will be of interest to the future, for they will show our descendants what we thought to be important or interesting or relevant in our age and underline that the past really is ‘another country’ in which they did things differently.