Title: Chambers Biographical Dictionary
Publisher: Chambers Harrap Publishers ltd.
Tested: November 11-14, 2004
Biographical dictionaries come in many different sizes and shapes. They range from the very small pocket editions, such as the Pocket Oxford Dictionary of Biography, to the concise editions, such as the Webster's Concise Biographical Dictionary. There are the regular editions, such as the biographical dictionaries of Hutchinson, Merriam-Webster and Britannica.
Then there are the large editions, such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), which was published in September 2004 in 60 volumes, as well as being released online. Finally, there are the gigantic digital biographical reference suites from Thomson Gale and H.W. Wilson that powerfully fuse the content of many biographical dictionaries and indexes, and magnificently enhance them with links to full-text articles in general interest periodicals.
EBSCO, which does not produce its own dictionaries and encyclopedias, also does an impressive job of integrating high-quality biographical collections in several of its databases, such as MasterFile Premier and MiddleSearch Plus. The many digitally unique ready-reference sources aggregated, integrated and innovatively cross referenced by Xrefer Plus include tens of thousands of biographical entries.
The titles of these dictionaries, though, do not provide enough clues as to the number or depth of the entries. For example, the Pocket Oxford Dictionary of Biography has about 4,300 entries. The pocket and the concise editions by Merriam-Webster have close to 7,000 biographies. And for further confusion, there are dictionaries sporting the Webster name by publishers other than the company established by the Merriam brothers. These Webster's dictionaries, including a biographical one by Macmillan, just use the Webster name with blessing by the U.S. courts.
It may be more helpful to categorize the biographical dictionaries by the range of the number of entries. There are the small ones with less then 10,000 biographies; the medium-sized with 10,000 to 30,000 entries (the majority of dictionaries mentioned above); and the large ones that contain more than 30,000 entries, such as ODNB, which features 50,000.
The Chambers Biographical Dictionary (CBD) is in the lower end of the medium-sized category with 17,500 biographies. As opposed to all of the above-mentioned dictionaries, the digital version of this one is free. The others are available as part of some digital package deals by aggregators. EBSCO, for example, combines three very good biographical dictionaries (Britannica, Hutchinson and the Cambridge Dictionary of American Biographies) in a variety of its general interest magazine databases targeted at schools and public libraries.
Chambers is not well-known in the United States, but it is considered to be among the best publishers of reference works in the United Kingdom. Quite tellingly, one of the earlier editions of CBD was published many years later (with an eye for the U.S. market) with the title Cambridge Biographical Dictionary. In the UK, the Chambers Dictionary is the official reference dictionary for Scrabble tournaments and championships — a badge of clout. CBD is part of the free Chambers Reference Online service, which also includes the Chambers 21st Century Dictionary and the Chambers Thesaurus.
I find it to be a very good source, but I would not go as far as Auberon Waugh, the respected literary critic who wrote for many of the most well-known British newspapers. He gushed in the Sunday Telegraph that the "Chambers Biographical Dictionary is quite easily the best reference book in the world." His exaggerated claim may just have been an overreaction to the praise lavished by reviews and comments on Merriam-Webster's Biographical Dictionary (MWBD). True, it has about 30,000 entries, but only of dead people, who managed to pass away before the closing of MWBD a decade ago.
My test searches clearly indicated that CBD's biographies are almost always longer and more substantial than their counterpart entries in MWBD. For example, look at the entries for two non-Anglo-Saxon winners of the Nobel Peace Prize in both resources: Menachem Begin in MWBD and in CBD, and Anwar Sadat. Sadat gets a tad more comprehensive coverage in MWBD then Begin, but still much less than in CBD.
There is no comparison possible for the more current Peace Prize winners from the region — Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat — in the two dictionaries. Peres is alive, Rabin was assassinated in 1995 when MWBD was published and Arafat was just buried as I wrote this review, so none of them qualified for MWBD. All three have substantial biographies in CBD, though Arafat's death is not yet reported in CBD.
The free CBD is the online version of the centennial sixth edition (published in 1997), but apparently it also includes the updates of the seventh edition (published in 2002). This can be presumed from the entries that mention the 2001 death of Aberon Waugh, Anthony Quinn, Jack Lemmon or the king of Nepal, but not Ken Kesey or Pauline Kael, both of whom passed away after the closing date of the seventh edition in mid-2001.
The superiority in the coverage of British, Scottish, Irish and Welsh politicians, artists, scientists, activists, novelists, poets, warriors and rulers was no surprise. It is quite telling that all four female members of the Pankhurst family — Emmeline and her three daughters Christabel, Sylvia and Adela — who fought for suffrage have substantial entries. The first and the last even have a small inset with a quotation, an appealing feature of many of the entries in CBD. For comparison, MWBD has a single entry for the mother that mentions two of her daughters, but not the youngest . The difference in the depth of coverage between CBD and MWBD is characteristic of the entire collection.
Beyond its outstanding coverage of and reasonable slant to famous British, Scottish, Irish and Welsh people, CBD has very good international coverage as well. Of the more than 100 people on my biography benchmark test, only the extraordinary man and sportsman Duke Kahanamoku, the multiple literary award winner Jorge Semprun, the greatest of the Hawaiian kings King Kamehameha I , and one of the best known Confucian philosopher Yi Hwang did not have a biography in CBD. (Asian and Arab names are tricky to search because of the many transliteration alternatives. I tried the latter one under different variants including his honorary and pen name.)
All of the entries of CBD are substantial and some of them would be appropriate for an academic encyclopedia. The entry about Cicero spans three screens, contains links to related biographies of other famous Romans and provide details characteristic of biographies in special biography collections. The same can be also said about the entry for Dante, which again has an insert with quotes in the original and in English from his "Divina Commedia." The same is true for most of the other test searches, including the one about Haile Selassie which is more informative than in MWBD.
A big advantage of CBD for cases of people not from Anglophone countries is that the titles of their works are translated into English, whereas in MWDB they are not. In the case of Sigmund Freud's biography, for example, this alone would make the CBD entry much better than the one from MWDB, the last third of which is likely to be incomprehensible for most readers.
The real pleasant surprise was that entries for famous Americans are more informative in CBD than in MWBD, even when iconic persons of the U.S. are concerned, such as Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost , Janis Joplin, Bernard Malamud, Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony or Hank Williams — to name a few. You can compare the CBD entries to those in MWBD for Dickinson, Frost, Joplin, Malamud, King, Anthony and Williams.
I did not find any significant errors in the CBD biographies. I have only a few minor quibbles, such as declaring the Austrian author Stefan Zweig as British. He spent the vast majority of his life, even if counting only his creative life, in his native country and he wrote most of his works in German. True, he received his British citizenship, but at best he was Austrian-British. MWBD handles this scenario better in its otherwise less informative entry.
In another example, CBD states as a fact that Arafat was born in Jerusalem. Most other sources at least question this claim and/or indicate Cairo as the more likely place of birth. This is confirmed by a commentary in Newsweek that quotes him as also claiming to have been born in Gaza. The entry in A&E Biography is affirmative as it states that a birth certificate lists Cairo as his birthplace. Of course, this is just a minor controversy about Arafat's claims. The official Web site of the Nobel Prize takes the best approach about this issue in a footnote .
There is not much to write about regarding the software. The only search option is to search for the name, element of the name or alternate name of the biographee. You can't even truncate the query for situations when you are not sure in the exact spelling of, say, Sirimavo Bandarainaike.
It would be easy and very useful to make the full entry searchable. I am hopeful, because the A&E Biography also had the same limitation but it upgraded its software last Spring. At least, the nationality and the avocation, which are distinct data elements, should be made searchable.
The entries are full of links to the biographies of related persons mentioned in the text — an excellent, though indirect search tool. Sometimes a name in the text is not linked even though he or she has an entry in CBD. For example, in the biography of Dante, Charles de Valois is mentioned, but there is no link to his substantial entry. In all, I found only a few missing links in my benchmark test.
Occasionally, the link from within an entry takes the user to the wrong biography. It appears to be a software problem, but it is really a content problem. For example, in the entry about Emmeline Pankhurst, the link to Adela includes the wrong record identifier and thus takes the user to the entry about Adela, the daughter of William the Conqueror.
It is a nice software feature that if a query matches several entries a compact entry with the full name, the birth and (if applicable) death dates, the nationality, and occupation or avocation are displayed on one line to help the user choose the desired entry.
Linking from words in the biographical entries to their definition (in a non-obtrusive way) would be helpful for looking up the meaning of a word, or the non-obvious meaning of a word.
In spite of its relatively small size within the mid-size category, CBD is an excellent resource. It has more informative entries than MWBD, which is not available free of charge. As any search logs can prove, the overwhelming majority of users look up biographies of persons who are mentioned in the current news. Although CBD does not include events in the persons' life that happened after 2001, it is fairly current, although not as current as the A&E Biography or most of the online encyclopedias. It is however, far more current than MWBD, which is limited to people who died before the closing of the last print and online edition of the dictionary — which happened a decade ago.