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The Oxford DNB at 10: what we know now

Autumn 2014 marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. In a series of blog posts, academics, researchers, and editors look at aspects of the ODNB’s online evolution in the decade since 2004. Here the ODNB’s publication editor, Philip Carter, considers how an ever-evolving Dictionary is being transformed by new opportunities in digital research.

When it was first published in September 2004, the Oxford DNB brought together the work of more than 10,000 humanities scholars charting the lives of nearly 55,000 historical individuals. Collectively it captured a generation’s understanding and perception of the British past and Britons’ reach worldwide. But if the Dictionary was a record of scholarship within a particular timeframe, it was also seen from the outset as a work in progress. This is most evident in the decision to include in the ODNB every person who had appeared in the original, Victorian DNB. Doing so defined the 2004 Dictionary (to quote the entry on Colin Matthew, its founding editor) as ‘a collective account of the attitudes of two centuries: the nineteenth as well as the twentieth, the one developing organically from the other.’

In the decade since 2004 this notion of the ODNB as an organic ‘work in progress’ has gone a step further. This is seen, in part, in the continued extension of biographical coverage, both of the ‘recently deceased’ and of newly documented lives from earlier periods—as discussed in other articles in this 10th anniversary series. But in addition to new content there’s also been the evolution—in the form of corrections, revisions, amplifications, and re-appraisals—of a sizeable share of the ODNB’s 55,000 existing biographies, as new scholarship comes to light.

The need to ‘keep-up’ with fresh research is not new. In 1908 the Victorian DNB was reprinted in an edition that collated the marginalia and correspondence born of several decades of reading. Thereafter, no further reprints were undertaken and later findings remained on file: information relating to the birthplace of the Quaker reformer Elizabeth Fry, for example—submitted by postcard in 1918—could not be address until the 2004 edition of the Dictionary. Such things are today unimaginable. Over the past ten years, and alongside the programme of new biographies, existing ODNB entries have been regularly updated online—with proposed amendments reviewed by the Dictionary’s academic editors in consultation with authors and reviewers. It’s worth remembering that today’s expectation of regular online updating is one that’s emerged in the lifetime of the published ODNB. Just 10 years ago, many saw online reference as a means of delivery not a new entity in its own right. The expectation that scholarly online reference could and should keep in step with new research and publications (and could be done while maintaining academic standards) is one pioneered, in part, by works like the ODNB.

One consequence is that Dictionary editors now focus on conservation (just as museum or gallery curators care for items in their collection) as well as on commissioning. In doing so we draw heavily on an ever-growing range of digitized records that have become available in the lifetime of the published Dictionary. This has been a truly remarkable development in humanities research in the past 5 to 10 years. For British history we’ve seen the digitization of (to name a few): the census returns for England and Wales (to 1911); indexes of civil registration in England and Wales (births, marriages, and deaths from 1838); Scottish parish registers from about 1500; early modern wills and probates; and 300 years’ worth of national and provincial newspapers. And this just scratches the surface.

Portrait of Lady Meux by James Abbot McNeill Whistler, 1881. Frick Collection. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of Lady Meux by James Abbot McNeill Whistler, 1881. Frick Collection. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In 2004 there were many people in the ODNB for whom the biographical trail ran cold. Access to paper records alone once meant that certain individuals simply disappeared from the historical record. Of course, some lives remain puzzles. But with these newly digitized sources we’re now able to address many of the previously unknown and untraceable episodes that were scattered across the 2004 edition. A decade on we’ve added details of nearly 3000 previously unknown births, marriages, and deaths for ODNB subjects. Access to newly digitized sources also prompts more wide-ranging revisions. Take, for example, the traveller Eliza Fay (1755/6-1816), known for her Original Letters from India, whose Dictionary entry has recently doubled in length owing to new genealogical research that minutely plots a troubled personal life that led Fay to travel to India and the business ventures she maintained there.

The case of Eliza Fay reminds us that this boom in digitized resources is particularly valuable for better understanding the lives of nineteenth and twentieth-century women. As a result of multiple marriages and/or multiple name changes many such biographies are prone to obscurity. There are also many occasions when women gave false information about their age, often for professional reasons. With digital resources, and a little detective work, it’s now possible to recover these stories. One example is Valerie, Lady Meux (1852-1910), who married into one of Britain’s wealthiest brewing families. To her contemporaries, and to generations of researchers, Lady Meux appeared the epitome of high society. But recent research uncovers a very different story: that of Susie Langton, the daughter of a Devon baker who—via multiple changes of birthdate and name—worked her way into the London elite. To Susie Langton (or Lady Meux), the discovery of her true past may not have been welcome, but for modern historians it becomes a key part of her story, and a fascinating case study of late-Victorian social mobility.

A good deal of this detective work is being done from the ODNB office. But much more comes in from thousands of researchers worldwide who are also making use of digitized resources. It’s our good fortune that the ODNB online is growing up with the Who Do You Think You Are? generation—a band of genealogists from whom we’ve benefited greatly thanks to their willingness to share new information. Such discoveries obviously enhance our understanding of the ODNB’s 60,000 main subjects, but they’re similarly adding much to the Dictionary’s 300,000 ‘other’ people: the parents, children, spouses, in-laws, patrons, teachers, business partners, and lovers who also populate these biographies. Looking ahead to our second decade, we anticipate that more will be made of these hundreds of thousands of ‘extras’ in creating a richer picture of the British past—as the ODNB continues to document and add to what we know.

Recent Comments

  1. D.Conrad

    Enjoy receiving daily biography. If I lived in the UK I’d definitely have a library card and have access online to DNB. I live i Switzerland and it’s frustrating not to be able to access info for my research. Could I use the N° of the library card number of my sister in England??

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