Get Historical Perspective

By Bowen, Charles | Editor & Publisher, September 5, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Get Historical Perspective

Bowen, Charles, Editor & Publisher

Reporter's Digital How-To

Find important biographies at

Biographies are as central to newsroom reference books as encyclopedias and that old, dusty copy of Who's Who in America you've stashed back in the library. But these fine, old printed resources are rather badly name-dependent. In other words, if you know the name of the subject you are researching, you're in tall cotton. However, the old books are less effective when you need to know:

* Who discovered sodium?

* What composer wrote "A Bicycle Built for Two" and when?

* Industrialists associated with the city of Chicago.

* Identities of political contemporaries of Woodrow Wilson.

For these and other tough nuts, turn to the Internet's Biographical Dictionary, where you can delve into more than 25,000 entries, searching not only by name, but also by keyword (such as positions held, professions, and literary and artistic works) and by important dates, including the subject's birth or death. The site also supports sophisticated advanced options for narrowing and broadening a search with Boolean expressions and with wild cards.

* Names of British prime ministers, U.S. cartoonists or the author of Ethan Frome.

To use this electronic reservoir, click on "Search the Dictionary" on the introductory page. The resulting display gives you data entry fields for name, keyword and/or date. Fill in one or more of the fields and click on the "Submit" button. Keep it as simple as possible and the data can be entered in either upper- or lowercase or a combination of the two. Often, a last name is sufficient for finding the bio you need, but if you choose, you can add a first name or initials.

Use the keyword field to search by profession, award, written work, ethnic group, theatrical role, or any other characteristic or distinctions. You can also enter fictional characters to retrieve information about actors who played the role and authors who have written about the characters. You also can enter a word like "nylon" to retrieve information about anyone in the database generally associated with the material.

Regarding the date field, note that dates alone usually produce too many results to be useful, but the field is effective when used in tandem with keywords.

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