Finding Biographical Information


| Getting Started | Types of Sources |CONSULS for Books | Indexes & Databases | Reference Books | Online Sources | Evaluating Biographical Information | Questions? |


Tips for Getting Started

In most cases, the subject of a search for biographical information is a person who achieved a measure of distinction (or perhaps notoriety) during his or her lifetime. However, it is important to keep in mind that the vast majority of human beings live comparatively obscure lives, leaving little recorded information to remind posterity of their existence, except perhaps an obituary, a will, a few letters and photographs, personal financial records, and sometimes a diary, journal, or daily appointment calendar.

Basic information about very well-known individuals can often be found by consulting a general encyclopedia, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica or Encyclopedia Americana, located in the reference section on the first floor of the Ruth Haas Library. But before commencing a search, it helps to know some basic facts about the person who is the subject of the inquiry.

Clues uncovered at the beginning of your search can lead to sources of recorded information about the person whose life you are researching.


Sources of Biographical Information

Primary Sources

An information source is considered primary if it is a work written, created, or generated by the person whose life is the subject of the search. Primary sources include:

Secondary Sources

An information source is considered secondary if it is a work written by others about the person's life and times or about his/her works. Secondary sources include:


Finding Biographical Information in CONSULS

CONSULS is the online catalog of the holdings (books, videorecordings, CDs, periodical subscriptions, etc.) of the four CSU Libraries (CCSU, ECSU, SCSU, and WCSU) and the Connecticut State Library (CSL), available via the WCSU Library Homepage at library.wcsu.edu/web or directly at www.consuls.org. There are two ways to find information about a person in CONSULS:

SUBJECT Search

Select Subject at the CONSULS main menu, then type as much of the person's name as you know, last-name-first, and press the RETURN or ENTER key (correct spelling is important!).

Example: jefferson thomas (press RETURN or ENTER)

CONSULS will display a list of subject headings that begin with the name you typed. Birth and death dates may be included in the heading immediately following the full name.

Jefferson Thomas 1743 1826
Jefferson Thomas 1743 1826--Bibliography
Jefferson Thomas 1743 1826--Biography
Jefferson Thomas 1743 1826--Correspondence
Jefferson Thomas 1743 1826--Criticism and interpretation

Some (but not all) full-length biographies will be listed under the unsubdivided main heading. Other biographical works will be listed under the subdivision --Biography.

To limit results to items owned by WCSU, select Limit/Sort in the toolbar at the top of the screen, then select WCSU under "Where Item Is Located." To find videorecordings about the person, select Limit/Sort at the list of retrieved items and then VIDEO under "Material type."

KEYWORDS Search

Select Keywords at the CONSULS main menu, then type the name of the person you are researching, followed by the phrase and biograph*. PLEASE NOTE that in a keywords search, you do not have to type the person's name last-name-first.

Example: jane austen and biograph* press RETURN

You may limit a keywords search by date, material type, or location (WCSU) by selecting "Modify Search" in the toolbar at top of screen.

To find biographical information in a broad subject area, select Keywords at the CONSULS main menu, then type the appropriate subject term(s), and add the phrase and biograph*.

Example: president* and biograph* press RETURN
Example: (psychology or psychologist*) and biograph* press RETURN
Example: africa* and (women or woman) and biograph* press RETURN

The asterisk (*) at the end of the root biograph* is a truncation symbol that instructs CONSULS to retrieve variant endings on the word, for example, biography, biographies, biographical, biographically, etc.


Using Indexes & Databases to Find Biographical Information

| Biography Index | Academic Search Premier (EBSCOhost) | Other Biographical Indexes |

Biography Index

The best all-around index to biographical information is Biography Index (1946-present) published by H.W. Wilson Company. Available in print in annual volumes updated in quarterly paperback supplements, it is located on the index shelves in the reference area of the first floor of the Haas Library.

Biography Index is a comprehensive index of biographical information published in books and magazines, including obituaries, collections of letters, diaries, memoirs, book-length biographies, essays in reference books, periodical articles, book reviews, juvenile literature, and bibliographies. Entries are arranged alphabetically by the last name of the biographee (person written about). All the biographees are American unless otherwise noted. Each entry includes the person's occupation and may include birth and death dates. There is an Index to Professions and Occupations at the end of each volume and a List of Composite Books Analyzed at the beginning of each volume. Each book or article indexed is represented by a citation.

Sample citation: Sheridan, E. R. Jefferson and Monticello. il Am Hist Illus v28 p58-69 Jl/Ag '93.

In this index, the title of the periodical may be abbreviated, as in the above citation. The full journal title can be found by looking under the abbreviation in the Key to Periodical Abbreviations at the beginning of each volume. In this case, Am Hist Illus is an abbreviation of the full title American History Illustrated.

Academic Search Premier (EBSCOhost)

Academic Search Premier (ASP) is a general periodical database covering articles published in over 8,000 English-language newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals since 1990 (earlier for many titles), with 4,000 of the periodicals available in online full-text. ASP is available on the WCSU Libraries Homepage under Articles/Databases. Because the database is leased, rather than owned by the WCSU Libraries, a library PIN code is required for remote access.

To find information about a person in Academic Search Premier, simply type the person's name, followed by the phrase and biograph* and click on the "Search" button. In the retrieval list, citations for articles available in full-text are accompanied by a small icon of a printed page. You may limit search results to full-text articles only by selecting the "Full Text" check-box at the data entry screen before clicking on "Search."

Example: thomas jefferson and biograph* and click "Search"

To find reviews of book-length biographies in ASP, type a few keywords from the title of the biography, followed by the phrase and review*.

Example: jefferson and monticello and review* and click "Search"

Other Biographical Indexes

Abridged Biography & Genealogy Master Index. 3 volumes.
Haas Ref CT 214.A27 1988.
Guide to biographical information about persons living and dead, published in over 100 English-language reference books.
New York Times Obituaries Index.
1858-1978. Located on the index shelves in the reference area of the Haas Library (first floor).
Alphabetical name index to obituary notices published in the New York Times.
Personal Name Index to the New York Times.
1851-1993. Located on the index shelves in the reference area of the Haas Library (first floor).
Alphabetical name index to articles published in the New York Times.


Using Biographical Reference Books

Current Biography Yearbook

Current Biography Yearbook, published by H. W. Wilson Company, is a good starting point in biographical research, providing brief essays on the lives of people of all nationalities, from all walks of life, living and dead. The unsigned essays are 2-5 pages long and usually include a small portrait photograph of the biographee and a brief bibliography at the end of the text. Some of the essays supersede profiles in earlier volumes. There is also a name index at the end of each annual volume, a separately published cumulative name index covering 1940-1990, and an index by profession at the end of each volume. The entries in Current Biography Yearbook are indexed in Biography Index (see above).

Other Biographical Reference Works

The WCSU Libraries own a large number of biographical reference works, shelved in the reference section on the first floor of the Haas Library and at the Young Business Library at the Westside Campus. Following is a small selection of general and subject-specific biographical reference works, which may be helpful in your research. For a more complete list of biographical reference books in the WCSU Libraries, logon to people.wcsu.edu/reitzj/res/biogbooks.html.

American National Biography. 24 volumes.Ref CT 213.A68 1999
Dictionary of National Biography. 22 volumes.Ref DA 28.D41
Encyclopedia of World Biography. 20 volumes + annual supplements.Ref CT 103.M33.1998
The International Who's Who. Annual.Ref CT 120.I5
Who's Who. 1908- Ref DA 28.W6
Who's Who in America. 1899- Ref E 663.W56
Who Was Who. 1897- Ref DA 28.W65
Who Was Who in America. 1607- Ref E 176.W64

American Men and Women of ScienceRef Q 141.A4742
Baker's Biographical Dictionary of MusiciansRef ML 105.B16
Contemporary Authors Many volumes (use the blue paperback author index).Ref Z 1224.C6 and
Ref Z 1224.C591
Contemporary Black Biography. 6 volumes.Ref E 185.96.C66 1994
Dictionary of Literary Biography. Many volumes (use blue paperback author index).Ref PS 21.D5
Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 16 volumes.Ref Q 141.D5 1981
Nobel Prize Winners: A Biographical DictionaryRef AS 911.N9.N59
Who's Who among African AmericansRef E 185.96.W52
Who's Who in American ArtRef N 6536.W5


Online Sources of Biographical Information

To find Websites containing biographical information about a specific person, logon to your favorite Web search engine (for example, Google at www.google.com), then type the name of the person you are researching, followed by the phrase and biograph* and click on "Search." In evaluating the quality of biographical information found on the Web, it is important to use the criteria discussed in the Guide to Evaluating Websites at: people.wcsu.edu/reitzj/res/evalweb.html. Following is a list of selected Websites provide biographical information:

  • Biography.com A&E Television Networks (www.biography.com)
  • Biography in the Google Directory (www.google.com/Top/Reference/Biography)
  • People via Google (www.google.com/Top/Society/People)
  • People via Yahoo! (dir.yahoo.com/Society_and_Culture/People)
  • Infoplease Almanac: Biography (www.infoplease.com/people.html)
  • The American Presidency courtesy of Grolier (ap.grolier.com)
  • Anthropology Biography Web (www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/information/biography)
  • Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress (bioguide.congress.gov/biosearch/biosearch.asp)
  • Biographies of Women Mathematicians (www.agnesscott.edu/lriddle/women/women.htm)
  • The Catholic Encyclopedia (www.newadvent.org/cathen)
  • Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online (www.biographi.ca/index2.html)
  • From Revolution to Reconstruction: Biographies (odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/B/index.htm)
  • Grove Art Online under "Articles/Databases" on the WCSU Libraries Homepage (WCSU library PIN required)
  • Pulitzer Prize in Biography or Autobiography list of recipients (www.literature-awards.com/pulitzer_prize_biography.htm)
  • Wikipedia collaborative encyclopedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page)

  • Evaluating Biographical Information

    Biographical information is not always accurate or of high quality. Writing the story of a person's life may require an immense amount of painstaking research. Some biographers are tempted to take shortcuts by relying on second-hand information without checking the original source. This is particularly true of "celebrity" bios, especially when written to capitalize on a recent event. Biographies of contemporary political figures are often written from a biased point of view. In evaluating a book-length biography, be aware that an authorized biography is more likely to present an account of the person's life which the biographee (or his/her family) finds acceptable. On the other hand, an unauthorized biography may provide a less biased account, but lack personal details which only the biographee or a close family member might have revealed.

    An autobiography is a special catgegory of biographical work written by its subject. For obvious reasons, an autobiography does not cover the entire span of the subject's life. Also, it is important to remember that few writers are capable of complete objectivity concerning events in their past, which they may have reason to conceal or cast in a favorable light. Some autobiographies are written with the deliberate intention of preempting biographers who might offer a more revealing account or more critical appraisal of the subject's actions and achievements.

    Scholarly biographies are usually longer than popular biographies and almost always include an extensive list of references and/or notes. A good biography should also include portraits or photographs of the biographee at various stages in his/her life, and pictures of important family members and associates who are discussed in the text. For critical commentary on full-length biographies of individuals of general and scholarly interest, see The St. James Guide to Biography (Haas Ref CT 101.S69). To find critical reviews of biographical works, see Finding Reviews of Books and Media at: people.wcsu.edu/reitzj/res/reviews.html.


    Do You Have a Question?

    The Reference Desk on the first floor of the Haas Library is staffed by a professional librarian who is trained to assist in your research, or you may contact Joan Reitz, Instruction Librarian, at 837-8308 or reitzj@wcsu.edu. My office is located in Room 402 on the fourth floor of the Haas Library (near the glass elevator).

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    Please send your comments to Joan Reitz, Haas Instruction Librarian, Western Connecticut State University.
    reitzj@wcsu.edu
    Last updated on September 27, 2005