Editor's Introduction

Our strapline proudly proclaims “The life of a nation is told by the lives of its people” and we take that mandate seriously at the American National Biography.   Biography matters.   Sometimes history is seen as boring or dry, but when it is approached through individual lives, it comes alive.  Suddenly instead of some term like “industrialization” you have Lucy Larcom who left her New Hampshire farm to work in the textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts in the 1830s.  “Abstract Expressionism” becomes the paintings of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.  “Transcendentalism” is Thoreau, Emerson, and the Peabody Sisters.  “The Great Depression” leads you to labor activist Luisa Moreno and photographer Walker Evans. And so the list continues.

Did we mention that the “list” now contains more than 19,000 names?  Practically any field or time period or region or occupation that you are interested in is represented in the entries of the American National Biography.  This biographical reference work represents a gateway to all of American history.  It also aims to shape how we view the American nation by documenting the diversity of contributions made by a range of American citizens over time. 

This commitment to diversity – to representing all facets of the American experience, including but not limited to race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, region, occupation, and more – is our primary goal at the ANB. We want this biographical reference work to mirror American society, with well known figures such as presidents and generals sharing space with midwives, Native American trappers, bank robbers, and cartoonists.  All fit our broadly defined standard of significance, which includes achievement (superior accomplishment as judged by contemporaries), fame (celebrity or notoriety), or influence (effect on one’s own time despite lack of public notice).   The only hard and fast rule is that all our subjects must be dead.

The online version of American National Biography offers an appealing combination of old and new.   Originally published in 24 print volumes in 1999 by Oxford University Press under the auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies, this biographical reference work quickly migrated online, with the capacity to continually add new entries and update old ones.  Any biographical dictionary that lacks the ability to update and expand its coverage will gradually lose its usefulness, precisely because the world continues to change and evolve, a process which just compounds over time.  Our online capabilities allow us to keep this rich and deeply-researched source up to date and in conversation with new trends in history teaching and historical writing.

Our product also offers significant advantages over Wikipedia.  Unlike the collective process of creating Wikipedia entries, our essays are written by individual scholars, writers, and advanced graduate students who are experts in the field and craft a narrative in their own voice. The length of an essay is carefully calibrated to the significance of the subject, with special attention to providing just the right level of detail to give readers the key facts they need to know about a particular individual.  It may seem like a simple proposition to condense a life into 1000-1200 words, but the short biographical format is in fact one of the most difficult genres to master. We are proud of our band of ANB authors – some 6600 strong – for rising to this challenge.   Without them, biographical reference works like the ANB literally would not exist.

The ANB offers other features that commend it to researchers, classroom teachers, and general browsing.  Every entry offers consistent biographical information (such as date and place of birth, educational degrees, marriages, major career highlights, and significant awards) laid out in chronological fashion, capped by a final assessment summarizing the subject’s accomplishments and significance for our general readers and a brief bibliography of published and online sources.  Especially useful are the hyperlinks to other individuals mentioned in each biographical entry, a useful way to follow the historical trail outward in multiple directions.  More than 3000 essays are illustrated with paintings, prints, etchings, and photographs drawn from the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, and more illustrations are being added on a regular basis.  All these features are easily accessed with our powerful search and browse capabilities.  

No one could possibly read the American National Biography in its entirety, but there is something wonderfully serendipitous about accessing individual lives and getting sucked into their stories.  As a senior historian observed about an earlier generation of biographical dictionaries, “Reading those sketches is as seductive as eating salted peanuts:  You always take a few more.”  In print volumes, this process happened the old-fashioned way:  you opened a book to an entry, and then maybe you looked at the one before it, and maybe the one after. The same thing happens online through following the cross-references and hyperlinks.  Either way you are hooked. So be forewarned—sampling the ANB may prove addictive.  We also promise that it will be a rewarding experience which will enrich your understanding of the role of individuals in the broader context of American history.   

-- Susan Ware

General Editor