Biographical Dictionaries

There are several types of biographical dictionaries. They range from the "universal" dictionaries, such as WEBSTER'S BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY, which include people from all times, countries and occupations, to the very selective, such as WHO'S WHO IN BRITISH ADVERTISING.

In practice, when searching for biographical information you will use as many different sources as you can, limited only by your collection and your imagination. Among the most useful places to check are encyclopedias, almanacs, dictionaries, magazine articles (often found through the use of READERS' GUIDE) and any book available in the biographee's subject field.

When you read a biography remember that the truth is never fit for publication.
-Shaw

If you can find out from your patron a few basic clues about the person, you will have a big advantage. Key questions to ask if you are not familiar yourself with a name are:

  1. Is the person still living?
  2. If not, about when does the patron think the person lived?
  3. Nationality?
  4. Occupation?
  5. Where did the patron hear about this person?
  6. How much information is needed? Birth and death dates? Complete life story?

Often, all you have to begin with is a name, and then your best starting point is one of the general sources such as encyclopedias, dictionaries, or a universal biographical dictionary like WEBSTER'S NEW BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY. If you know more, you can often turn immediately to a more specialized source - turning for example to WHO'S WHO IN AMERICA for information on Melvin Belli if you have that source in your branch.

One of the most helpful biographical sources Is WEBSTER'S NEW BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY. You will very likely have other good biographical sources as well. Try to become familiar with the basic style of each of the biographical dictionaries you have in your branch, noting the type of information supplied. Note, too, the currency of the edition. This is vital when dealing with people who are alive.

WEBSTER'S BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY was first published in 1943. It included biographical information about living personages as well as those who had died. When the dictionary was revised, in 1983, references to living notables were dropped. The WEBSTER'S NEW BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY (1988) now lists more than 30,000 famous people from all countries who lived (but are no longer living) during the past 5,000 years.

Appendices in the back give pronunciations of first names and country of origin of each name.

For biographical information about living notables, consult WHO'S WHO IN AMERICA.

Complete the Biographical Dictionaries Practice Questions.

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This page was last updated on November 6, 2003.