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Introduction; History of the DNB; Plans for a new DNB

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, in association with the British Academy is the first point of reference for anyone interested in the lives of the peoples of the British Isles and their connections overseas, from the earliest times to the end of the year 2000. It is the product of research instituted at the University of Oxford and funded by the British Academy—Britain's national academy for the humanities and the social sciences—and by Oxford University Press. It is the achievement of 10,000 contributors and advisers, a worldwide community co-ordinated by project staff in Oxford.

The Oxford DNB aims to provide full, accurate, concise, and readable articles on noteworthy people in all walks of life, which present current scholarship in a form accessible to all. No living person is included: the Dictionary's articles are confined to people who died before 31 December 2000. It covers people who were born and lived in the British Isles, people from the British Isles who achieved recognition in other countries, people who lived in territories formerly connected to the British Isles at a time when they were in contact with British rule, and people born elsewhere who settled in the British Isles for significant periods or whose visits enabled them to leave a mark on British life.
The Oxford DNB comprises 50,113 substantive articles in a single alphabetical sequence. 49,705 of these concern individuals, and 408 cover the lives of several people in a single entry under the name of a family or group—the Grey family, for example, or the Tolpuddle Martyrs. 5217 people appear in subsidiary notices forming part of another article. In total, the Oxford DNB includes lives of 54,922 people. It incorporates in rewritten or revised form all 38,607 lives contained in the Dictionary of National Biography, the precursor of the Oxford DNB, published between 1885 and 1900, and in its supplements, published between 1901 and 1996.

Articles in this dictionary present the lives of one or more persons written by one or more authors. They bear the names of those authors, and in the case of articles from the DNB that have been revised for the Oxford DNB the form of the signature indicates the fact of their revision. In addition to outlining a person's activities, character, and significance, each article aims to include, where feasible, certain standard facts about the person's life: dates and, as appropriate, places of key life events (such as birth, education, marriage, death, and burial), information about parents and spouses, and places of residence. All articles contain bibliographical sources. Further references are provided which list material that supplements the article and may assist research: on archives, likenesses, and wealth at death.

Accompanying about one article in five is an image of the person who is the subject of the article—generally a portrait, but sometimes an effigy, coin, or other iconographic material. Selection of the 10,057 likenesses was organized by the National Portrait Gallery, drawing on its own collections and on about 1500 other sources. Chosen to ensure that their overall balance reflects coverage in the Dictionary, the images are wherever possible authentic likenesses taken from the life.

This introduction seeks to explain the historical context from which the Oxford DNB came, its gestation, its principles of inclusion, how its information was gathered, how it is presented, and how it has been compiled and published in printed and electronic forms.

History of the DNB

The DNB was from the outset a remarkable enterprise. (1) The publisher George Smith—of Smith, Elder & Co.—at first projected a dictionary of world biography, taking as his model the forty-volume Biographie universelle (Paris, 1843–63). In 1881–2 he discussed this idea with Leslie Stephen, who was then working with him as editor of the Cornhill Magazine, and in 1882 was persuaded to scale down his ambition and instead to fund a dictionary of British national biography. Stephen then resigned from editing the Cornhill to become the DNB's first editor. Once a quarter from 1885 to 1900 the DNB's sixty-three volumes successively rolled out from the presses in alphabetical order 'with unbroken punctuality', (2) as Sidney Lee (the DNB's second editor) wrote in 1900, casting a sidelong glance at the slow progress made with similar publications elsewhere in Europe. The DNB's 27,236 articles covered 29,333 people. (3) Lee counted 653 contributors, but identified 'one hundred regular and voluminous contributors' who 'have written nearly three-fourths of the whole'. (4) He rightly called it 'an undertaking of exceptional magnitude in the history of publishing', (5) and the organizational skill involved still seems impressive. Smith's feat was also philanthropic: he invested £70,000 in the DNB—the equivalent of about £5 million at the start of the twenty-first century.

The task taxed Stephen's health as well as Smith's funds, and in 1891 Stephen gave way to his successor as editor, Sidney Lee, who brought the planned project to fruition in 1900. However, by 1901 the DNB's revision had already begun: three supplementary volumes to the original dictionary were published in that year. Again edited by Lee, these volumes included 965 articles covering 1007 people who had died between 1885 and 22 January 1901 (the date of Queen Victoria's death), together with others unintentionally omitted from earlier years. Given that the DNB's volumes had been published quarterly in alphabetical order, material for the supplement at the end of this process was inevitably weighted heavily towards the alphabet's earlier letters. A volume of corrigenda to the entire dictionary was published in 1902, and some of the accumulated corrections to the articles in the DNB's first edition and first supplement were incorporated into the main body of the work when Smith, Elder reissued the sixty-three original volumes and the three-volume supplement in twenty-two volumes during 1908–9.

Thereafter the original DNB remained unmodified, but chronological supplements on the recently deceased continued to be published between 1912 and 1996. The first of these covered people who died between 1901 and 1911, included 1632 articles on 1659 people, and was published by Smith, Elder in 1912; it was the last among Lee's heroic labours for the Dictionary. In 1917 the Smith family gave the DNB to the University of Oxford, which entrusted it to OUP. Thereafter OUP kept in print the twenty-two-volume set and the supplement for 1901 to 1911, and published nine further supplements under eight editors, adding a total of 5551 new articles on 5570 people who had died up to 31 December 1990. In 1975 OUP published a two-volume 'compact edition' of the DNB with supplements covering the period to 1960, micrographically reproduced. The volume entitled Missing Persons (1993), edited by Christine Nicholls, added 1082 articles on 1083 people who had been omitted from all earlier volumes up to 1985. In 1996 OUP also published the DNB complete up to 1985 on CD-ROM, and some selections of DNB articles were published separately in thematic print volumes between 1997 and 2002. (6) The Concise DNB up to 1900 had been published in 1903 as the Index and Epitome, a second part (covering 1901 to 1950) in 1961, with a revised version (1901 to 1970) in 1982, and a consolidated three-volume edition (from the earliest times to 1985) in 1992. The DNB (including all its supplements and Missing Persons) contained 36,466 articles on 38,652 people; of these, 45 had been entered twice, so the total number of lives included was 38,607.

Plans for a new DNB

Throughout the twentieth century the case for revising the DNB and its supplements steadily built up. Errata were collected at the Institute of Historical Research and for many years were published in its Bulletin. Yet errors and omissions could not be comprehensively corrected without resetting the entire dictionary. OUP did not feel able to meet the huge cost of doing this, given contemporary printing methods—nor in the 1960s could it tempt subsidies from charitable foundations. By the 1980s far more than mere correction was needed, for the century-old work now required complete rejuvenation. Modern scholarship called for articles on new types of people and a fresh approach to those already there. Missing Persons made a start on gathering additional names, but the need for revision could be met only by a completely new edition. This would have the ancillary advantage of restoring the continuous alphabetical sequence of names that had been cumulatively subverted by each supplement published from 1901 onwards. At this point OUP could perhaps have abandoned the entire venture as too costly, but in 1989 the delegates and senior officers of OUP identified a new DNB as 'an urgent priority'. (7)

An initiative was encouraged at this time by the advent of new technology and by OUP's experience of two comparable projects. In 1984 the Press had begun computerizing the Oxford English Dictionary. This entailed integrating the original text with its supplements, and the whole was published as a second edition in 1989, electronically on compact disc in 1992, and online in 2000. In 1986 a new American National Biography had been commissioned by the American Council of Learned Societies; it was published by OUP's New York office in twenty-four print volumes in 1999, and online in 2000. Key decision-makers in the initial phase of planning the Oxford DNB were Ivon Asquith (managing director of OUP's Arts and Reference Division, and later of the wider Academic Division), Nick Wilson (commercial director of the Arts and Reference Division, and formerly publishing editor responsible for the DNB), Sir Anthony Kenny (president of the British Academy and a delegate of OUP), and Sir Keith Thomas (a delegate of OUP and chairman of its finance committee).

Initial plans put to OUP's delegates in March 1990 envisaged editorial work continuing over twenty years through to 2010, and proceeding alongside publication of three volumes a year for fifteen years from 1995. External financial support was thought essential to fund the necessary research and writing, and in April 1990 the delegates asked the British Academy for help in securing government funding for those elements of the work. Under Sir Anthony Kenny the Academy endorsed the plan, and in January 1992 received for the purpose a substantially increased grant from what was then the Department of Education and Science. On 21 February 1992 the Academy's Council agreed to contribute towards research costs through an annual subvention to the University of Oxford. That subvention, set at £250,000 a year in 1992/3 and subsequently rising in line with inflation, made it possible formally to establish the project. A Supervisory Committee was appointed, with representation for the Academy, the University of Oxford, and (by invitation) the Royal Society (the members are here). Meeting at least once a year, it was chaired throughout its life from 1992 to 2004 by Sir Keith Thomas. The Committee exercised general oversight of the project, which then assumed the working name 'New Dictionary of National Biography'.

The most crucial early decision was the appointment of the editor. The leading candidate identified in 1991 was Colin Matthew—then fellow of St Hugh's College, Oxford—who co-edited or edited the last twelve volumes of W. E. Gladstone's diaries (14 volumes, 1968–94). At the end of February 1992 he was formally invited to become editor of the new venture, and in March 1992 the University of Oxford announced the project's establishment under his leadership from September 1992. Comparing his task with that of the DNB's first two editors, Matthew noted that the university-based professional expertise available to them had been small, whereas by the 1990s the pool of such authority in the British Isles, the United States, the Commonwealth, and continental Europe was vast; 'mobilising and coordinating this expertise', he wrote, 'will be a chief duty of the Editor'. (8)

Even before taking up his new role on 1 September 1992, Matthew started work on reconstituting the project's plan with Nick Wilson, who was the OUP director responsible for the project until 1997. The plan in 1992 still envisaged writing and publication extending over twenty years. After wide canvassing of specialist views about the DNB, and working closely with OUP and the chairman of the Supervisory Committee, Matthew rapidly made several important recommendations. The most far-reaching among them were that the project be completed in only twelve years instead of twenty, and that the Dictionary be published as a complete set rather than in instalments. Such a change carried practical consequences for the balance of funding: OUP would be able to take up only three-fifths of the promised public funds, would have to fund the large balance of research costs, and would have to forgo the income from publishing the Dictionary in instalments. None the less, the OUP delegates on 21 January 1993 approved the revised project plan, agreeing to proceed with the Dictionary 'as a service to scholarship, in no expectation of a commercial return'. Matthew asked the Supervisory Committee formally to record in its minutes his 'delight' at this decision. To the total government funding of £3.7 million which the Oxford DNB received between 1992 and 2004, OUP eventually added £19.2 million, and spent a further £3 million on the production costs of the complete print and online editions.

The detailed plans for the new dictionary—practical, financial, and intellectual—were outlined in the editor's report to the Supervisory Committee's meeting on 5 April 1993, and were approved collectively by the British Academy, the University of Oxford, and OUP at that meeting. Within the project thereafter Matthew's 'April report' provided an authoritative statement of objectives. He publicized his proposals more widely in his article for History Today in September 1993, in his presentations to conferences and institutions, and in his Leslie Stephen lecture at Cambridge in 1995 (published two years later). Contacts were established with other national biographical dictionaries and scholarly projects. Public discussion of the Dictionary's aims continued in occasional interviews for newspapers and magazines; as Lee said of the DNB, the work was being 'conducted in the full light of day'. (9) All this lent the project a clear intellectual aim, and gave it the strong editorial momentum that became one of its defining features.

Behind his recommendations lay Matthew's judicious combination of scholarship and pragmatism. 'From my point of view as Editor', he wrote, 'it is important both that it be done well and that it be done.' (10) He found reassurance in Stephen's own view that 'great as is the difference between a good and a bad work of the kind, even a very defective performance is immensely superior to none at all'. (11)

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1 For a fuller account, see R. Faber and B. Harrison, 'The Dictionary of National Biography: a publishing history', Lives in print: biography and the book trade from the middle ages to the 21st century, ed. R. Myers, M. Harris, and G. Mandelbrote (2002), 171-92.


2  S. Lee, 'The Dictionary of National Biography: a statistical account', Dictionary of National Biography, 63 vols. (1885-1900), vol. 63, p. viii.


3  Numbers given here are based on analysis of the entire DNB text. They differ marginally from those given by Lee in his 'Statistical account', where the totals given are '27,195 . . . full substantive articles' supplying 'notices of 29,120 men and women' (Lee, 'Statistical account', x).


4 Lee, 'Statistical account', xv; but cf. G. Fenwick, The contributors' index to the 'Dictionary of National Biography', 1885-1901 (1989), xxi.


5 Lee, 'Statistical account', v.


6 Brief lives, selected by Colin Matthew (1997); Stage and screen lives, selected by Michael Billington (2001); Literary lives, selected by John Sutherland (2001); Political lives, selected by Hugo Young (2001); Secret lives, selected by M. R. D. Foot (2002); Musical lives, selected by Nicholas Kenyon (2002); Royal lives, selected by Frank Prochaska (2002); and Military lives, selected by Hew Strachan (2002).


7 Faber and Harrison, 'The Dictionary of National Biography', 181.


8 H. C. G. Matthew, 'Editor's preliminary report', 29 June 1992, Oxford DNB archives, 2.


9 Lee, 'Statistical account', v.


10 H. C. G. Matthew, Leslie Stephen and the 'New Dictionary of National Biography' (1997), 37.


11 Quoted in Matthew, Leslie Stephen, 37.


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