Week 5: Geographical and Biographical Sources


Internet Public Library

PAC Learning Resources Center

Merriam-Webster Online

Online Almanacs and Yearbooks Please explore thoroughly.

Ready Reference Materials Slide Show

Ready Reference Slide Show



Geographical and Biographical Sources

For information about people, the type of reference work you will use most often will be a biographical dictionary, sometimes called “collective biography”.

Entries in biographical dictionaries are usually listed alphabetically by surname. Many sources also list nicknames, pseudonyms, stage names, parts of compound surnames, married names, maiden names or full and real names as “see” references.

In a few biographical dictionaries, the lists of entries are arranged either geographically, chronologically or by occupation. In this case, an index by surname is essential.

Entries in biographical dictionaries may vary from condensed outlines of facts using numerous abbreviations to full narrative or interpretative essays. The most common data elements in an entry are dates, titles, birthplace, family, education, qualifications, career, published works, religious affiliation, recreational or sporting memberships and honors and awards. Useful data elements that may be included in some sources are pronunciation of names, portraits or photographs, bibliographies leading to more detailed information and contact addresses.

An example of someone who might need to use a biographical dictionary would be a person writing an essay who needs background information about someone such as Margaret Thatcher. The widest coverage of living people can be found in the group of publications called Who’s Who. The first Who’s Who was published in 1849, and contained a list of names of the titled and official classes of Britain. Who’s Who in America has been published since 1899. It is also arranged alphabetically, with a separate index volume that provides access to entries by geographical location, profession, recent retirees and deaths.

Both the American and British versions have high standards of admission. They include people across a wide range of fields, politics and government, the armed forces, business and industry, the professions and the arts, who are prominent.

There are separate Who’s Who volumes for geographic regions and women and a few specialized ones based on ethnic origin and occupation. These include Who’s Who in American Jewry, Who’s Who Among Black Americans and Who’s Who in Theatre.

Who’s Who or similar types of biographical dictionaries are also available for many other parts of the world, including Africa, Australia, Canada, China and India.

But, if you are writing a paper for American history about someone long dead, such as Patrick Henry, you would need to choose a retrospective source covering the United States, such as the Dictionary of American Biography.

If your assignment is English history, like maybe Mary, Queen of Scots, the best source that covers Britian and Ireland is the Dictionary of National Biography.

Authors are usually covered in handbooks of literary criticism. Remember there are other sources that can provide biographical information, such as encyclopedias and some almanacs.

Maps and Atlases

Maps and atlases provide geographical information that can help you find your way around a modern city or write an essay about an ancient civilization.

Maps are usually issued as single sheets that can be folded, rolled or stored flat. Many come as parts of series covering geographical regions such as countries or continents.

Atlases are collections of maps, usually combined with an index, that covers parts of a city, state, country or the world. Like dictionaries, many atlases have supplementary “lists”. They may include glossaries of geographical terms, astronomical charts, insets of city plans, world time zones, population statistics and tables of distance and time for air, rail and highway routes.

Also useful are gazetteers, defined as geographical dictionaries. Entries in a gazetteer may include the official, standardized forms of spelling of place names as entry headings, with latitude, longitude, brief description, population and proununciation.


Biographical Information

Biographical information can sometimes be difficult to find. The OZUNA LEARNING RESOURCES CENTER provides many useful biography books, some of which are listed on this guide.


Webster’s biographical dictionary CT 103.W4

World almanac biographical dictionary CT 103.W66

International dictionary of women’s biography CT 3202.157



Who’s who DA28.W6

Who’s who in the Bible BS570.C35

Who’s who among Black Americans E185.96.W52

Who’s who of American women E176.W647

Who’s who among Hispanic Americans E184.S75.W53

Who’s who in the ancient world DE7.R33



Current biography CT100.C8
Illustrated articles about newsworthy individuals of all nationalities

McGraw-Hill encyclopedia of world biography CT103.M27
Twelve volumes containing 5,000 articles about people relevant to social and cultural History

Dictionary of American biography E176.D563
Scholarly essays on famous Americans who died before 1966

Dictionary of national biography DA28.D47
Men and women in British history who died before 1971



Google "biographical reference" and explore the links. Take notes and report conclusions and your ideas in Discussion.




Twentieth century authors PN451.K84

European authors 1000-1900 PN451.K8

World authors PN451.W3

Contemporary poets PR603.C6

Contemporary dramatists PR737.C57

American women writers PS147.A4

Chicano writers PS153.M4 C484

Black authors and illustrators of children’s books PN1009.A1R63



Contemporary photographers TR139.C663

Contemporary theatre, film and television PN2285.C58

Mantle Fielding’s dictionary of American painters, sculptors and engravers N6536.F5

The new Grove dictionary of music and musicians ML100.N48

Harper’s Bible dictionary BS440.H237



Biographical dictionary of American educators LA2311.B54

Congressional directory JK1011.C66

International encyclopedia of the social sciences: Biographical supplement H40.A215



American men and women of science Q141.A474

Dictionary of scientific biography Q141.D5

Asimov’s biographical encyclopedia of science and technology Q141.A74



Answer the following questions about biographical and geographical sources in the Discussions area of Canvas in ACES:

1. How are entries in most biographical dictionaries arranged? What other kinds of information can you find besides surnames in these sources?

2. What are the most common data elements in an entry in a biographical dictionary?

3. Where can the widest coverage of living people be found?

4. Name some of the fields from which people come who are listed in Who's Who?

5. Give an example of a specialized Who's Who.

6. Give examples of sources to use for a history assignment.

7. How are maps and atlases different.

8. What kinds of supplementary lists can an atlas contain?

9. What is a gazetteer?

10. What kinds of information might you find in a gazetteer?

Don't forget to take the quiz. (Go to Canvas in ACES.)

Colby Glass, MLIS, Professor Emeritus