September 2014 marked the tenth anniversary of the publication of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Over the next month a series of blog posts explore aspects of the Dictionary’s online evolution in the decade since 2004. In this post, Sir David Cannadine describes his role as the new editor of the Oxford DNB.
Here at Princeton, the new academic year is very much upon us, and I shall soon begin teaching a junior seminar on ‘Winston Churchill, Anglo-America, and the “Special Relationship”’, which is always enormously enjoyable, not least because one of the essential books on the undergraduate reading list is Paul Addison’s marvellous brief biography, published by OUP, which he developed from the outstanding entry on Churchill that he wrote for the Oxford DNB. I’ve been away from the university for a year, on leave as a visiting professor at New York University, so there is a great deal of catching up to do. This month I also assume the editorial chair at the ODNB, as its fourth editor, in succession to the late-lamented Colin Matthew, to Brian Harrison, and to Lawrence Goldman.
As such, I shall be the first ODNB editor who is not resident in Britain, let alone living and working in Oxford, but this says more about our globalized and inter-connected world than it does about me. When I was contacted, several months ago, by a New York representative of OUP, asking me whether I might consider being the next editor, I gave my permanent residence in America as a compelling reason for not taking the job on. But he insisted that, far from being a disadvantage, this was in fact something of a recommendation. In following in the footsteps of my three predecessors (all, as it happens, personal friends) I am eager to do all I can to ensure that my occupancy of the editorial chair will not prove him (and OUP) to have been mistaken.
As must be true of any historian of Britain, the Oxford DNB and its predecessor have always been an essential part of my working life; and I can vividly recall the precise moment at which that relationship (rather inauspiciously) began. As a Cambridge undergraduate, I once mentioned to one of my supervisors that I greatly admired the zest, brio, and elan of J.H. Plumb’s brief life of the earl of Chatham, which I had been given a few years before as a school prize. ‘Oh’, he sniffily replied, ‘there’s no original research there; Plumb got it all from the DNB.’ Of course, I had heard of something called DNA; but what, I wondered, was this (presumably non-molecular) sequel called the DNB? Since I was clearly expected to know, I didn’t dare ask; but I soon found out, and so began a lifelong friendship.
During my remaining undergraduate days, as I worked away in the reading room of the Cambridge University Library, the DNB became a constant source of solace and relief: for when the weekly reading list seemed overwhelming, or the essay-writing was not going well, I furtively sought distraction by pulling a random volume of the DNB off the reference shelves. As a result, I cultivated what Leslie Stephen (founding editor of the Dictionary’s Victorian edition) called ‘the great art of skipping’ from one entry to another, and this remains one of the abiding pleasures provided by the DNB’s hard-copy successor. Once I started exploring the history of the modern British aristocracy, the DNB also became an invaluable research tool, bringing to life many a peer whose entry in Burke or Debrett was confined to the barest biographical outline.
Thus approached and appreciated, it was very easy to take the DNB for granted, and it was only when I wrote a lengthy essay on the volume covering the years 1961 to 1970, for the London Review of Books in 1981, that I first realized what an extraordinary enterprise it was and, indeed, had always been since the days when Leslie Stephen first founded it almost one hundred years before. I also came to appreciate how it had developed and evolved across the intervening decades, and I gained some understanding of its strengths—and of its weaknesses, too. So I was not altogether surprised when OUP bravely decided to redo the whole Dictionary, and the DNB was triumphantly reborn as the ODNB—first published almost exactly 10 years ago—to which I contributed the biographies on George Macaulay Trevelyan and Noel Annan.
Since 2004 the Oxford DNB has continued to expand its biographical coverage with three annual online updates, the most recent of which appeared last week. In September 2013 I wrote a collective entry on the Calthorpe family for an update exploring the history of Birmingham and the Black Country, and I am eager to remain an intermittent but enthusiastic contributor now that I am editor. As we rightly mark and celebrate the tenth anniversary of the publication of the ODNB, and its successful continuation across the intervening decade, it is clear that I take over an enterprise in good spirits and an organization (as the Americans would say) in good shape. Within the United Kingdom and, indeed, around the world, the ODNB boasts an unrivalled global audience and an outstanding array of global contributors; and I greatly look forward to keeping in touch, and to getting to know many of you better, in the months and years to come.
Headline image credit: ODNB, online. Image courtesy of the ODNB editorial team.