The Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) was the idea of the great Victorian publisher, George Smith, of Smith, Elder and Co., though he originally envisaged a compendium of universal biography to contain every notable figure in human history. Smith approached his friend, Leslie Stephen, the Victorian man-of-letters and former Cambridge don, who was then the editor of the Cornhill Magazine, to be the editor of the new venture. Stephen prevailed on Smith to set his sights somewhat lower and produce instead a collection of British lives as a more realistic alternative.
The first public notification of the project was published in The Athenaeum on 23 December 1882. The 63 volumes of the DNB were published quarterly between 1885 and 1901, covering their subjects in alphabetical order. A subsequent three-volume supplement was produced to include those figures who had died while the DNB was being compiled. In chronological terms the last life included was that of Queen Victoria herself which seemed to set the seal on the DNB as the most epic and ambitious scholarly work of the Victorian era and one that faithfully reflected Victorian values within its brown covers. In fact, Stephen had been clear from the outset that he intended to produce a useful tool of reference for scholars and general readers alike rather than a celebration of supposed national greatness and an evocation of national qualities. And if his successor as editor, Sidney Lee, deviated somewhat from these modest, workmanlike and essentially scholarly ambitions, the DNB was never patriotic and nationalistic in the way that some other national biographical dictionaries of the period certainly were.
Stephen was assisted by a small core staff based in Waterloo Place, St. James's. The Dictionary's home was clubland, above all the Athenaeum, as befitted a work that was largely written by a small band of metropolitan scholars and antiquaries. There were over 600 contributors in all, who were responsible for the more than 30,000 biographical essays in the DNB, though a core of 30 or so contributors wrote more than half the Dictionary between them. While it is true that some of the most notable among the first generation of professional historians of the early 20th century served their apprenticeship on the DNB – T. F. Tout, the medievalist; A. F. Pollard, the Tudor scholar; and Charles Firth the 17th-century historian among them – its ethos was largely shaped by the culture of 'amateur' scholarship. This is not any sort of criticism for the DNB was still in use until the publication of its successor, the Oxford DNB, in 2004 and may still be consulted with profit and enjoyment. But it points to the difference between the scholarship of the 1890s and 1990s.
In 1917 Smith's heirs passed the DNB to Oxford University Press (OUP). Over the course of the 20th century the DNB was updated by supplementary volumes covering a decade of national history in each case. The appearance of a supplement was a major publishing event and an opportunity to reflect on recent history. But the physical limitations of a single volume limited also the number of biographies that each could carry, and the predilections of its 20th-century editors did not take them much beyond coverage of 'the great and the good'. The result was a skewed view of national history. In 1993 a single volume dedicated to 'Missing Persons' – notable figures whom previous generations had omitted from the pantheon – was published.
Almost as soon as OUP received the DNB from Smith's family it commissioned research into the Dictionary's status as a historical tool and it was noted that parts of it were already outdated and in need of revision. As the supplements were published so the DNB also became unwieldy to use. But the opportunity, resource and technology required for the rewriting of the Dictionary were not available until the 1990s. In 1992 the Press offered the position of founding editor of the New DNB, as it was first called, to Professor Colin Matthew, an Oxford historian of the 19th century and the editor of Gladstone's diaries in 14 volumes. Matthew was also offered 20 years to produce the new Dictionary, to be published serially and alphabetically.
He chose instead to design a work that would be published in 12 years and in one go. He also designed a series of overlapping and interlocking research projects, some treating British history chronologically and others treating it thematically, by which the Dictionary was compiled. Calling on the goodwill of national and international scholarly communities, he built a pyramidal structure of contributors and editors that passed commissions down the line from Oxford and took finished articles up the line to a cadre of Research Editors working in the university. It was his triumph, though he did not live to see it, that the Oxford DNB was published in September 2004, exactly 12 years, as planned, after he started work.
It was published in two formats: in 60 print volumes and also online, accessible over the Internet. OUP had specified in 1992 that the new Dictionary should be accessible by whatever new technological means was then current. During the course of its compilation the Internet was born and matured as a natural home for large-scale scholarly projects. The Oxford DNB is one of the first major works of scholarship that was designed for the Internet and in its online format can be searched for information in innumerable ways.
As published in 2004 it comprised more than 50,000 articles, covering the lives of approximately 55,000 figures from British history in over 60 million words (making it the largest single publication in the history of the language). More than 10,000 authors contributed to the Oxford DNB, 3,000 of whom lived outside the United Kingdom. It also included more than 10,000 illustrations of the more notable historical figures, making it the largest single collection of national portraiture. The work of many independent scholars has been included in the new Dictionary but the majority of contributions have come from professional academics. In comparison with the first Dictionary, the second is published by a university press, is located in a university, and has used the expertise of specialists. The first DNB was compiled on the cusp of the changes that were to lead to the expansion and professionalisation of academic life: the second fully reflects the impact of those changes on the organisation of knowledge a century later.
Smith and Stephen left the focus of the DNB ambiguous: the Dictionary of National Biography does not specify which nation it concerns. This was not the product of any Victorian superiority complex or of national insouciance. The complicated and ever-changing historical interplay of the four nations of the British Isles, and the fact that Britain as an entity is of relatively recent creation, encouraged an approach that was deliberately (and hence creatively) vague about the precise historical and geographical definitions of the DNB's scope. The Oxford DNB has continued in this tradition: it includes more than 5,000 Scots, 4,000 Irish and 2,000 Welsh in its selection.
Covering a period of more than two millennia, it includes people born in the British Isles; people from the British Isles who achieved recognition in other countries, perhaps as servants of empire; people born elsewhere who settled here for significant periods; those whose visits enabled them to leave a mark on British life; and those who never set foot on 'British' soil but who shaped British history nonetheless. The 700 colonial Americans in the Oxford DNB include figures from each of these categories, among them those who led the American Revolution: as subjects of the crown who helped shape 17th- and 18th-century British history they have an undoubted place in national history. The Dictionary also contains biographies of Erasmus, Marx, Ghandi and Freud, all of whose contact with Britain affected national, and in these cases international, history as well.
Yet the Oxford DNB differs from its predecessor in the type of lives included. It contains three times as many biographies of women as a consequence of their increasing prominence in the 20th century and our increasing knowledge of their historical roles and significance in the more distant past. The Victorians notoriously undervalued and hence underrepresented business and technology (as opposed to estate management and pure science). The Oxford DNB has given much more prominence to entrepreneurs and engineers in its pages. With the growth of leisure, the mass media and mass entertainment during the 20th century there has been a consequent rise in the status of popular culture in national life and the Oxford DNB registers this in its coverage of sport, cinema, broadcasting, television and popular music. George Harrison, Freddie Mercury and Jimmy Hendrix (whose most significant music was made after he came to Britain from the United States) all find their places, therefore. If the focus on 'soldiers, statesmen and scholars' in the first DNB was a reflection of late Victorian views of national history, the impact of recent interest in social history is plain in the choices made for the second Dictionary.
Because the Oxford DNB is published online it is an extensible resource that can be updated, amended and expanded as required. Since 2004 it has been updated three times in each year with a varied mix of content. First and foremost, annual updates at the start of each calendar year add the most notable lives of those who have died since 2000 to the Dictionary. Thus in 2005 approximately 200 lives were added to the Dictionary from among those who died in 2001. In 2006 the additions were from among those who died in 2002, and so on. The Dictionary adds biographies some three or four years after death, enabling contributors to make more than instantaneous judgements (as in obituaries) while assessing people before they have been forgotten and lost to public memory.
Several hundred 'additional lives' of those who died before 2000 and who were not included in the 2004 edition of the Oxford DNB have been added since publication and will continue to be added in the future, thereby extending the Dictionary's coverage and reflecting new historical outlooks and social interests. They include some specific groups, among them all of the English and Welsh bishops before the Reformation, and notable figures in the history of British decolonisation who led their nations through the process of political independence.
Associated projects include the compilation and publication of more than 400 'group articles' so-called, designed as a companion to the individual biographies in the Dictionary. These focus on the most notable networks and coteries to be found in British history, covering all aspects of national endeavour whether political, social, economic, cultural, scientific or technical. The group articles are of interest in themselves and help to place many of the lives covered in the Dictionary in their most appropriate contexts. Notable anniversaries, historic commemorations, and exhibitions are featured on the Dictionary's website, often with a specially commissioned article that links the occasion to biographical essays contained in the Oxford DNB.
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is an organic development of the first DNB, including all of the subjects from the first Dictionary, but adding to them with the selections of our own age. Like the DNB it does not seek to impose any strict definition of the nation. As it grows and develops it will reflect changing approaches to national history on the part of its readers as well as its writers. It is a vast and growing store of historical and biographical knowledge for local and national historians alike and is available online or in print in almost every public library and university in the United Kingdom, and by personal subscription.
Lawrence Goldman is Editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography