Boston College Libraries Faculty Newsletter



Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Thomas of Lancaster, c.1278-1322 manuscript painting [right, with St George]
Thomas of Lancaster,

In this day of immediate and readily available information, the arrival of major new reference sources can sometimes be obscured. That should not be the case with a resource recently made available by the Library, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The first edition, as researchers know, is a reference landmark and the new edition continues this tradition. The ODNB will provide Boston College researchers with a high quality resource for biographical information that also includes detailed social, political, and intellectual background.


There is a major difference this time around: at Boston College the new ODNB will be an online only resource.


What are the specifics?


  • Twelve years in gestation.
  • 10,000 specialists worldwide involved (including several from Boston College)
  • All 36,500 biographies from the original are included and over 70% were completely rewritten and the others revised.
  • 13,500 new lives added, including 3,000 new biographies of women.
  • 100,000 online “pages” and 62 million words.
  • Updated 3x/year online.
  • Searchable by date, field of interest/occupation, place of birth, baptism, death, burial, education, and religious affiliation.
  • Browse alphabetically or by date.
  • Highlight any word in the text and have it searched.
  • Link out to the National Register of Archives, American National Biography, and the National Portrait Gallery to the more than 10,000 portrait illustrations.


The ODNB continues the tradition of the original by including biographies of deceased individuals. Now current through 2001, it includes individuals from all walks of life. Moreover, the new edition includes more women, business and labour leaders, those born abroad who spent a considerable time in Britain (Karl Marx, for example), brief visitors who were important commentators on British life (Voltaire, for example), Britons who lived in Europe, more than 500 Americans from the first settlement to independence (Washington and Franklin who were not in the first edition of the DNB), and twentieth-century subjects from the fields of sport, entertainment (see John Lennon and Keith Moon), science, and Britain’s expanding ethnic community. Finally, the ODNB simply brims over with esoteric information. Read about the man who patented the windshield wiper or the “moving squeegee.”


The ODNB also includes several Thematic Essays that pull together many lives. Some examples are:

  • Head of Government in Ireland (1919 – 2001)
  • Musical Chart Toppers
  • Nobel Prize Winners
  • Poets Laureate
  • Consorts of the Monarchs of England (943? – 1707 & 1707 – 2001)
  • Saints
  • Roman England
  • Edmond Halley and Early Modern Astronomy


The entries are easy to print or e-mail. Clear citation information is provided as is the list of resources used and the extent of available archives. The online updating is also a significant feature of the ODNB. In fact a January 2005 update has already occurred and 195 biographies were added, including Douglas Adams, George Harrison, Edward Snow, Quintin Hogg, and Mary Whitehouse. These new biographies will only appear online.


Ed Tallent

Head of Reference and Instructional Services

Questions, comments? Contact the BC Libraries Newsletter Review Board.
Subscribe to the Faculty Newsletter