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

General Biographical Sources

Biographical reference sources are extremely useful for finding out about the general facts of a person's life - when they were born, who their parents and children were, who they married, what they did, where they went to school, and when and where they died. Biographical sources are abundant, can be general or subject specific, and are arranged in various ways. You can find biographical information in indexes, directories and dictionaries. Indexes provide citations to reference sources that contain information about the subject, directories provide brief information about a person and may have unique indexes, and dictionaries provide in-depth biographical information about a person's life.


Abridged Biography and Genealogy Master Index

Similar Sources to Consult:
American Library Association Portrait Index

If you haven't used the Abridged Biography and Genealogy Index before, the information presented within it may seem useless and hard to decipher, when in reality it is quite easy and will provide you with a list of sources to consult. The Abridged Biography and Genealogy Master Index is an alphabetical sequence of names of individuals. Each listing contains a name, birth and death dates (if known) and a list of reference sources that contain biographical information about the person. There is a key in the front of each volume, which provides the citations to the abbreviations for the reference sources found in the entries. Let's look at the entry for Abigail Adams:

Adams, Abigail Smith 1744-1818 AmRev, AmWomWr, BlmGWL, DcAmB, NatCAB 2, NotAW, WhAM HS, WhAm

According to the entry, Abigail Adams has biographical sketches in several reference sources including: The American Revolution, American Women Writers, The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature, Dictionary of American Biography (revised edition of the DAB is the American National Biography), The National Cyclopedia of American Biography Volume 2, Notable American Women, Who Was Who in America (Historical Volume) and Who Was Who in American Politics.

Many of these sources are widely available in the Reference Departments of schools or public libraries. Some of the titles may only be available at a college or university library reference department, especially those that are subject specific. Because the information in entries varies from source to source, it is good to examine many different reference sources to get the most complete information about the person. Just because the information is printed in a book, it doesn't necessarily mean it is always accurate; some reference sources are known to be better than others [see Evaluating the Source]. The most frequently consulted biographical reference sources are listed and described below.


The American National Biography and the Dictionary of American Biography are the best general reference sources for biographical information about well known Americans. For the British, the Dictionary of National Biography and, for Canadians, the Dictionary of Canadian Biography is the most common sources to consult.

American National Biography (ANB) (revised edition of the Dictionary of American Biography (DAB))

Similar Sources to Consult:
Dictionary of National Biography (DNB)
Dictionary of Canadian Biography (DCB)

The Dictionary of American Biography has recently been revised to encompass a larger representation of the American people. The revised edition is now called the American National Biography. Although the ANB includes biographical sketches that weren't available in the DAB, the editors of the ANB also chose to exclude some of the biographical sketches that were in the DAB. Therefore, you should consult both of the sources to obtain the most information about an individual.

The ANB spans time and disciplines and is strong for individuals who are well known; it rarely contains entries for those who are lesser known. In addition, the last volume contains indexes by subject, by contributors, by place of birth, and by occupation. The ANB is the first source to check if you are researching a major figure in American history.

Each entry has a sketch of the person's life including birth, marriage and death dates, where they lived and went to school and details of their career and family. Each entry also contains a bibliography, which provides a list of additional sources to consult. At the beginning of the bibliography, the author usually includes a note about the location of collections of the individual's papers (primary sources) including letters, diaries, photographs and business papers. If the person's papers have been published, the author will include that information as well as citations to other writings of the individual. Finally, the entry will also include a list of secondary sources written about the subject. Always take notes about the information contained in the bibliography. You may need to consult the mentioned sources later on in your research. Be sure to write down the reference source where you found the information on the note cards. By the end of the process you will have consulted many sources and you may want to go back to some of them to check your work.

Both the DNB and the DCB are arranged and presented in the same way as the American National Biography. Remember to check for the publication date of the reference sources you consult: the older the source is, the more out of date the information contained within it may be, although this is not always the case.

National Cyclopedia of American Biography (NCAB)

The National Cyclopedia of American Biography was published in the late nineteenth century and may be hard to find in a library in your area. Although slightly "dated," reference sources like the NCAB can contain information that isn't available in any other source. The National Cyclopedia often contains biographical sketches of individuals who may have been well known at the time the NCAB was written but since have been lost in the historical record. The drawback to a dated source is the accuracy of the information presented. If the source was written in the late nineteenth century, the scholarly information that was considered fact then may not necessarily be accepted now. You should compare the information presented in the NCAB to other reference sources for the most accurate information.

The entries in this source aren't arranged in an alphabetical sequence. In order to locate a specific biographical sketch, you have to consult the alphabetical index volume. Each listing provides you with information about which volume and page number to consult. Finally, the National Cyclopedia often contains pictures, usually engravings, of the individuals described in the sketches.

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