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A Research Guide: From the Secondary Source to the Primary Source

Biographical Sources by Subject

Subject-specific biographical reference sources can be in the form of dictionaries, directories and indexes. The dictionaries are arranged in an alphabetical sequence and can include biographical sketches about individuals involved in a particular profession -- artists, scientists, literary figures, inventors, clergy, politicians, historians, and doctors. Others provide sketches about graduates of a specific college or university like Yale and Harvard and some contain biographical information about individuals of a certain gender, race or affiliation.

Directories also provide an alphabetical sequence of biographical sketches by topic, but also can have additional sections of information. For instance the Directory of Congress includes a chronological listing of individuals who served in Congress from each state as well as the presidential administration that was in office at the same time. Subject-specific biographical indexes, like Artists Biography Master Index, are similar to the arrangement of the Abridged Biography and Genealogy Master Index.

The arrangement and information presented in the sources listed below are similar to those dictionaries, directories and indexes that have already been described in other sections. A biographical reference source by subject should be consulted when you know the profession of the person you are researching. It is useful to think about who you are researching. What do you already know about your subject? What the person did for a living? What social organizations did the person belong to? Use what you know about the person to determine which subject biographical source may exist to help you learn more.

Sources by Profession:

New York Historical Society's Dictionary of Artists, 1564-1860

Similar Sources to Consult:
Artists Biography Master Index
Biographical Directory of American Colonial and Revolutionary Governors
Biographical Directory of the American Congress
Biographical Directory of the US Executive Branch, 1774-1971
Dictionary of American Medical Biography
Legislators of the Massachusetts General Court
Memorials of the Massachusetts Society of Cincinnati

The New York Historical Society's Dictionary of Artists contains biographical sketches of lesser known artists as well as better known artists, foreign or native born, amateur or professional who worked in America through the mid-nineteenth century. Each entry provides full name, dates and places of birth and death, the subject of his work, and exhibitions. The dictionary also includes painters, draftsmen, engravers, lithographers, and other allied artists.

Sources by Gender/Race/Affiliation:

Biographical Sketches of Loyalists in the American Revolution

Similar Sources to Consult:
Dictionary of Negro Biography
Dictionary of Women Artists
Notable American Women

Biographical Sketches of Loyalists provides information about the people in America who sided with Great Britain during the American Revolution. Many of these individuals fled with their families to England or Canada during the war. It is strictly an alphabetical arrangement of biographical sketches compiled from information found in the collections of the Public Records Office in London. In the Introduction of this source, the author lists sources that discuss the history of the American Loyalists and provides the names of other biographical reference sources about the Loyalists.

Notable American Women and the Dictionary of Negro Biography are an alphabetical arrangement of biographical sketches of women and African Americans who contributed in some way to the historic record. Each sketch contains a bibliography of sources to consult for additional information about the subject. The references will lead to scholarly biographies about the subject, which you can choose to consult or pass up. Either way, the information exists to provide basic factual information or provide suggestions of resources for further exploration of the subject. (see Using Secondary Sources as a Reference Tool). Finally, sources, like Dictionary of Women Artists contain biographical information that is both gender specific and inclusive of one particular profession, in this case, artists.

Sources by College Affiliation:

Sibley's Harvard Graduates

Similar Sources to Consult:
Dexter's Yale Graduates
General Catalogue of Princeton University 1746-1906

Many colleges have biographical registers of their alumni. Sibley's Harvard Graduates comprises eighteen volumes and contains biographical sketches of men who graduated from Harvard from 1654-1780, many of whom shaped the political, social, religious and economic landscape of American life. These volumes are arranged by graduating class, therefore, the indexes are vital for locating a specific biographical sketch. Its strengths are numerous. Each sketch contains a summary of the facts and events of an individual's life and career, citations for additional sources to consult as well as a list of writings by the individual and information about the existence and location of personal papers.

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