Dying to meet the deadline

September 22, 2000

Notable Britons must die before December 31 this year to be included in the New Dictionary of National Biography. Huw Richards talks to the book's editor, Brian Harrison, and explains (below) what it is like to be a contributor

Sir Alec Guinness and Sir Robin Day have just made it, but 100 years ago Queen Victoria almost did not. The closing date for inclusion in the New Dictionary of National Biography approaches, and over the next three months staff at the mammoth biographical reference book will be reading newspaper obituary pages more closely than ever and keeping a close eye on reports of ill-health among the famous.

There is to be no repetition of the disruption caused to the first edition of the DNB when Queen Victoria inconsiderately died a few days after the closing date at the end of 1900. Brian Harrison, editor of the new DNB, says: "We will be sticking to our guidelines, and there will be no exception to the rule that anyone who dies after December 31 this year will have to wait for future or supplementary editions."

But the cut-off date is far from the end of the process for the team in the DNB office on St Giles, Oxford. The last article will not be received until 2002 for publication in 2004. About 4,000 entries are still to be commissioned.

Harrison joined the project at a midway point, after the sudden death last year of the previous editor, Colin Matthew. He admits that he still regularly asks himself and other members of his team "What would Colin have done?". Reminders of his predecessor are omnipresent - in staff memories, in the Colin Matthew building at the DNB's headquarters and even in the books lining Harrison's office. He says: "I see myself very much as a caretaker for all that Colin achieved. I am surrounded by his books, which he made available as the core of the research library used by us here. Many of the research editors followed that example, bringing in their own books to supplement our library."

He compares it to building a battleship: "Colin did all the initial planning - he built the hull and the deck. The balance changes - production issues are becoming a greater part of the job and commissioning articles less so, and there are decisions to be made that Colin did not have to consider simply because the project hadn't then got that far. But I don't see my job as doing anything to change from those initial plans."

It is a massive enterprise, involving renewal of 36,500 existing entries, commissioning 13,500 more and coordinating about 9,000 contributors, all to a strict timetable. Harrison says that Matthew had been well prepared for the role by his successful completion of a previous academic marathon, the Gladstone Diaries.

Harrison, who has spent his entire academic life in Oxford, had also supervised a giant project - The History of the University - although he points out it had 26 contributors, not 9,000. He is a professorial fellow in history and politics at Corpus Christi College and has a reputation as a researcher with an immense care for detail. A specialist in modern British social and political history, he shares Matthew's admiration for Gladstone.

He did not seek the DNB post, but was contacted by Keith Thomas, former president of Corpus, who informed him that he was the preferred choice of Oxford University and the Oxford University Press, partners in running the project. Although he thought about it before saying yes, he soon came around to the idea. "I thought it was a worthwhile project, and had a great admiration for what Colin had achieved. It also fitted very well with my own situation. I already have a contract to deliver a book on England since 1951, which is also for the OUP. Fortunately I had not committed myself to a very tight deadline. Much of the commissioning still to be done is 19th and 20th century, which is my period. We are four years from publication, and I am four years from retirement."

Far from obstructing the other book, he believes the DNB will aid it considerably. As Matthew once pointed out, "If I were capable of remembering every significant detail in the entries I read, I would be the best-informed historian in the country."

A project that studies Britain up to 2000 completes a logical chronological progression for Harrison: "My first book, Drink and the Victorians, ended in 1872. My next on the anti-Suffragettes went up to 1918, and the book after that covered the interwar years. The History of the University went up to 1970, the book for the OUP will cover 1951-90, and the DNB will take in people who die up to the end of this year."

He expects to add to his 12 entries in the DNB, which include the Chartist Henry Vincent, but says he cannot hope to match Matthew, who wrote more than 1,000 entries.

Commissioning is done in blocks by the 12 research editors. One issue is what to do when there is a well-established standard biography: "While there is no hard and fast rule, the tendency has been to look for someone who has something different to say about them," says Harrison. The OUP, concerned both about the possibility of pressure being applied by friends, relatives or descendants of subjects and the wounded amour-propre of potential contributors not selected, is not saying who will be writing what.

Harrison is happy to follow the approach to commissioning laid down by Matthew, who wanted to broaden coverage beyond the DNB's traditional strength in the political elite to reflect other areas of national life. "He was determined to increase the proportion of women, include more people from business, sport and entertainment, and to recognise the contribution to national life made by non-white ethnic minorities."

Many existing entries have a somewhat hagiographic tone, contributed soon after death by friends or colleagues, but Harrison again cites Matthew in pointing out: "A contemporary will have known more of the life and context of someone who died in the 1880s than we possibly can."

Harrison's enthusiasm for technology will make an increasing impact. He says it is likely that the new DNB could become, like its OUP sister project, the Oxford English Dictionary, an electronic work-in-continuous-revision. Applying electronic search techniques would make the new DNB even more of a tool for researchers than its predecessor, allowing new subjects and combinations of subjects for research to emerge. "You might, for instance, start a PhD thesis by searching for the words 'Catholic convert' and pull out dozens of entries," he says. "At the same time it forces us to improve our scholarship by being more precise in the use of words that might become search terms."

The self-described caretaker is clearly warming to his unexpected task.

On the DNB website, www.oup.co.uk/newdnb/, you can register a recommendation or interest in writing an entry; or email: newdnb@oup.co.uk

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