Get a Life: Comparing Online Biography Resources

Article excerpt

When you are in need of a short, comprehensive biography of a famous person, there are many online resources available for consideration. How do they differ from one another? Which works better for your biographical needs? These "people questions" can surface in many different contexts, which can affect your choice of a biography resource. Although students would likely head first to either Google or Wikipedia, information professionals need to take a more balanced approach, often choosing a paid resource over free ones. For this review, I concentrated on biographies of famous people--not genealogical resources, not public records databases, and not generic "people-finding" tools. I examined a handful of online biography resources (some free and some fee-based) that are most likely to be attractive in library settings.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The research methodology used was simple: First, I randomly selected 10 names of fairly well-known people--both living and deceased--from the areas of science, business, arts, and politics. I included a couple of non-U.S. names. Then, for comparison, I ran the names through a variety of online resources: Gale's Biography Resource Center and H.W. Wilson's Biography Index, Biography Reference Bank, and Current Biography Illustrated, as well as Wikipedia, Biography.com, Google, Yahoo!, and Bing.

The names I selected were Alexander Fleming, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Anita Roddick, Eiji Toyoda, Josephine Baker, Harper Lee, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Sonia Sotomayor, Jean Henri Dunant, and Betty Williams.

Here are the results, starting with the fee-based, subscription databases.

GALE BIOGRAPHY RESOURCE CENTER

The Gale Biography Resource Center describes its product as a comprehensive online biographical reference database. It covers 450,000 biographies of 380,000 people. Its focus is a wide spectrum of topics. Its intended audience is public, school, and academic libraries.

When you search by a person's name, you can choose to have Gale search on "Name contains" or "Start of last name." Although advanced search is offered, it is not all that advanced. You can combine, using Boolean operators, search terms in four fields: Name, Keyword, Fulltext, and Source. The Biographical Facts Search page functions as advanced search for additional fields. Available search capabilities include by name, occupation (with suggested occupation terms also offered), nationality, ethnicity, gender, birth and death years (an exact date or within a range--and with B.C. and A.D. available), birth and death places, plus an option to show only those results that have images.

The Biography Resource Center also offers a browse by category capability. You can store previous searches (in the current session) for further reviewing and you can print or email your search results.

How It Performed: The Biography Resource Center's search results covered a wide range of resources. In searching the 10 sample names, most-often cited resources included Almanac of Famous People, Contemporary Authors Online, Encyclopedia of World Biography, Marquis Who's Who, Merriam-Webster's Biographical Dictionary, and World Health. The newspaper and magazine resources often included Library Journal, London's Daily Mail, The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and USA TODAY. When it fit the subject matter, resources also included Ebony, Entertainment Weekly, Jet, and The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide.

Individually, Fleming had good results from solid resources--even in current magazine issues; the website citation linked to the Nobel Foundation. Tyson had good results but, surprisingly, no website was cited. Roddick had good results, especially in magazines and news, but the website citation, at first glance, seemed dubious. Toyoda had a fair amount of results, but the website citation was a 10-year-old TIME magazine entry. Baker had good results across a variety of resources; the website citation seemed to have her estate behind the content. …