Library Blog

Look for these databases in the "History and Biography" section on the bottom right of our Electronic Resources page.
Look for these databases in the "History and Biography" section on the bottom right of our Electronic Resources page.

Who’s Who and Beyond: Digital Biography Resources

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Library’s collection of electronic resources offers trusted sources for authoritative, updated, biographical information. The next time you are looking for a biographical overview, don’t turn to Wikipedia; look to one of these well-established, reliable resources instead. All are available off-site and in the Library. If you are using databases outside the building, you must be logged in to our website. If you do not have your login credentials, send an e-mail to

Dictionary of National Biography

"There is fascination and scholarship in equal measure to be found on every single page of this extraordinary endeavour ... The Oxford DNB brings the figures of our national story into sharp focus, brilliantly illuminating the darkest corners of our remarkable past." —Simon Winchester

The Dictionary of National Biography is “the national record of men and women who have shaped British history and culture, worldwide, from the Romans to the 21st century.” It includes over 60,000 biographies (and over 11,000 portraits) of men and women who died in or before the year 2012. Entries are signed and written by specialists in the field, and production is overseen by academic editors at Oxford University. Of all the reference sources available on our website, the DNB is the most fun and informative to read. The entries are exceptionally well-written and incisive.

Searching the DNB is quite easy and intuitive: Simply enter the name of the person you are searching for in the Search Article Title box at the top of the screen.  Search results can be filtered by various criteria like occupation, religious affiliation, type of article, and more if applicable. Common searching commands, such as double quotes and the * wildcard can be used. The advanced search allows one to enter additional terms and apply filters.

The online version is based on the 2004 print edition, but is updated and revised regularly. Contributions from notable scholars in previous editions established the DNB’s reputation and one can still access older entries by clicking on the “Archive Edition” link at the bottom left of the screen. Comparing old and new entries often illuminates ways in which attitudes and scholarship have changed over the years. Articles are followed by a helpful list of sources, as well as archives where primary source materials are available.

Users can print and save individual articles. To generate a PDF of an individual article, click on the "PDF" icon link at the top right of the article text, then download the PDF using your web browser. To print an article hover over the “share” icon and choose “Print” from the list that appears.

American National Biography

"A monument of historical scholarship. These biographical narratives, well-written and riveting, often read more like character sketches than dry, dusty history."—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard University

"The collective biography of the American people... "—Bernard Bailyn, Harvard University

ANB is also published by Oxford University Press (under the auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies) and can be thought of as the American sister set to the DNB.

ANB has “only” 19,000+ entries (we are a much younger country, after all), and like the DNB they are written (and signed) by individual scholars who are experts in the field. Entries are edited to retain the authors’ own voices, and are generally quite thorough. New biographies and revisions are added to the ANB on a regular basis, providing access to the latest, most accurate information available. Entries include bibliographies, links to related articles, and carefully selected external sources. Subjects cover the earliest recorded European explorations to the very recent past. Men and women who died in or before the year 2016 are included. (A March 2019 entry for Carrie Fisher—who died December 27, 2016—was the latest that I could find.)

The search interface is nearly identical to the DNB and includes similar options for advanced and basic searches and filtering results.

American History Collection: The Founding Era 

Created and maintained by the University of Virginia, The Founding Era is an innovative venture in digital publishing and a gift to biographers and American history scholars. The database includes thousands of digitized primary source documents from a number of the key figures in America’s founding. The emphasis is on correspondence, but administrative and legal papers, as well as diaries, are included. The Library provides full-text access to the papers of John and John Quincy Adams, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, Dolley Madison, James Madison, John Marshall, as well as The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution. Sources for the database are the most current, scholarly editions available, and in total would take up dozens of shelves. As new material comes to light, content is added to the database.

Best of all, The Founding Era is fully searchable, so that people, topics, places, ideas, and more can be searched across the whole database, or limited to a particular person’s materials. The interface is fairly intuitive, but a very useful "help" page is available if you get lost. 

Not to boast, but The Founding Era also contains a handful of letters sourced from The Society Library's manuscript collections, such as the one from John Adams seen here. The New York Society Library is mentioned in a letter to Alexander Hamilton from Brockholst Livingston and Edward Greswold.

People of the Founding Era

A companion platform to the content in the Founding Era collection, PFE culls biographical statements drawn from the annotations of the digitized papers of the Founding Fathers and other documentary editions of the era, and aggregates the information into a biographical glossary of early America. It includes well-known figures, as well as many not found in standard reference sources including the ANB. The PFE database includes over 75,000 people born between 1713 (the end of Queen Anne's War) and 1815 (the end of the Napoleonic War).

The PFE also provides identically structured data for each person allowing for group, or what the editors call prosopographical, study. Prosopography “is a method of historical inquiry that studies collections of biographical material about people connected by family, friendship, patronage, commerce, voluntary associations, and religion, or associated by date or place.” PFE allows researchers to see connections among the 75,000 people in the database and groupings by categories such as occupation, religion, residence, birth and death dates and more.

Marquis Who’s Who / Biographies Online

The Marquis Who’s Who family of publications have been a mainstay of library reference collections since the series’ inception in the late 19th century. The online database provides access to biographical data on over 1.5 million Americans taken from 24 different Marquis Who's Who print titles and is updated daily with revisions and new entries. The database also includes digitized biographies from the archive of Who Was Who in America volumes (1607-1985). Users can combine up to 15 criteria to create highly targeted searches.

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