Early US Literature

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Tools for Finding Scholarly Biographies Online


Scholarly databases are a useful tool for students or academics who are looking to access a wide array of information from the comfort of their home, office, or desk.  With the number of databases available, it can be confusing or even intimidating to figure out where to begin if a user has not utilized these tools before, either through a subscription service, public library, or college or university library.  In looking at three similar databases, it is easy to determine that, despite these databases being similar in nature, that these tools vary greatly.  To examine each database, I attempted to search for the biographies of three prominent Puritans: Anne Hutchinson, John Cotton, and John Winthrop.

Dictionary of Literary Biography

The main page of the Dictionary of Literary Biography looks harmless enough.  There are basic and advanced search options, as well as the option to browse the database by author or to browse volumes of smaller biographical information based on publication or ethnicity.  At first glance, Dictionary of Literary Biography covers a wide range of writers, ethnicities, and backgrounds.  Not all of these writers are strictly American or have published in exclusively one genre.  This database is well-suited for those who are looking for a broad range of writers over a span of time and geography.  James L. Harner, in the Literary Research Guide, writes, “Most volumes are organized around a genre, group, or type of writer within a historical period of a national literature; the majority of the 368 volumes published by October 2012 are devoted to literatures in English” (Harner).

When using the basic search for the three Puritan writers in question, the database did not return any results for Anne Hutchinson, John Cotton, or John Winthrop.  The advanced search displayed the same lack of results, and after browsing the catalogue by author, I discovered that none of these writers were listed in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.  In taking random samples of the authors who are listed on the website, the Dictionary of Literary Biography may not be suited for those looking for biographies of early American writers, but instead may better serve those with a more contemporary focus.

American National Biography Online

When arriving at the main page of the American National Biography, the search function can be impressive to those who are familiar with scholarly databases, but very intimidating to those who may not be as experienced with digital scholarly tools.  The “basic” search gives users the option to search by name of their subject in either articles or bibliographies, and also allows options to narrow possible results by dates of birth and/or death, occupation, place of birth, or to include or exclude results with illustrations or additional online resources.

The first search I tried in the database was for Anne Hutchinson, leaving all of the search parameters at their default settings except for sex, which I chose as female.  American National Biography Online returned one result, a 1350-word biography written by Elaine C. Huber in Antinomian Leaders.  The biography itself is helpful because it not only talks about Hutchinson, but links to the biographies of her associates, including John Cotton and John Winthrop.  Both Cotton and Winthrop’s pages displayed extensive biographies as well as portraits of both figures.

Each entry also includes a brief bibliography of scholarly works about that individual.  The formatting of the bibliography is a little confusing because it is all squished into one paragraph, without breaks or traditional formatting, but it is not confusing enough that an average user cannot sort it out.  Overall, the American National Biography Online is an excellent database to use for those who are comfortable with using advanced search features.  For those who may be new to scholarly databases and having to set extensive parameters, this online tool may take some getting used to.  This database does receive praise from scholars, however, as Harner describes this resource as “the country’s standard national biography for the foreseeable future” (Harner).

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has a very user-friendly homepage with the basic search readily available.  If a user were to scroll further down the page, he or she could find other various resources that the Dictionary has to offer, such as information on themes throughout history or about various historical documents, such as the Magna Carta.  In addition to the basic search, there are also tabs to bring up browsing functions such as searching the database, browsing the database, or searching the database by theme.

When attempting a search for Anne Hutchinson, the database returned one biographical result and one thematic result.  The biography, written by Michael P. Winship, is comparable to the biography found at the American National Biography Online, but also gives a brief paragraph about her famous children.  Oxford Dictionary of National Biography also returned one thematic result, titled Imperial Lives in the Oxford DNB.  This feature article discusses a number of British citizens who, for some reason, were considered dissidents in terms of political, religious, or social views.  The feature article is interesting because it not only describes the relationships among some of these historical figures, but also includes portraits of people discussed in the article.  Harner writes of this database, “Besides its superior search capabilities, the online ODNB offers other advantages over the print version: it is updated and corrected three times per year, hyperlinks allow for easy navigation between related articles (and within longer ones) and for connections to other electronic sources that provide additional information on the biography, and images are in color” (Harner).

Out of the three databases, I found the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography to be the most useful of the three.  Not only did the database return a moderately-detailed biography, but also provided search results that extended Hutchinson’s biography and made connections to other historical figures who may be useful when pursuing scholarly work.  For those who are familiar with databases, all three resources provide easy to use interfaces that allow users to search using a variety of parameters.  For those who may not be as familiar with online research resources, it may take a little bit of playing around in order to understand how these tools work, and to figure out how to get the results a user is looking for.

Works Cited

American National Biography.  The Oxford Index, April 2013.  Web.  29 July 2013.

Dictionary of Literary Biography Complete Online.  Gale Databases.  Web.  29 July 2013.

Harner, James L.  “American National Biography Online.”  Literary Research Guide.  5thEd.  E-book.  30 July 2013.

———-.  “Dictionary of Literary Biography.”  Literary Research Guide.  5th ed.  E-book. 30 July 2013.

———-.  “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.”  Literary Research Guide.  5th ed. E-book.  30 July 2013.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  Oxford University Press, 2004-2013.  Web. 29 July 2013.


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