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By Keith Thomas

The ebook of the Oxford Dictionary of nationwide Biography in September 2004 used to be an occasion of serious literary and scholarly significance. In his Leslie Stephen Lecture, commemorating the founding father of the unique Dictionary of nationwide Biography, the distinguished historian Keith Thomas surveys the numerous past makes an attempt at collective biography, considers the connection of the Oxford DNB to them, and gives a initial overview of it. the writer, who has been chairman of the Supervisory Committee of the Oxford DNB considering its inception, writes with intimate wisdom of the venture.

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Surely the Oxford University Press and the British Academy cannot have spent over £25 million, just to produce a work of scholarly reference ? What is the unstated agenda ? Is this a bid by a group of academics for cultural hegemony — an attempt to ensure that they are the owners of the past, the gatekeepers controlling admission to the temple of fame ? 107 There is some truth in this charge, in so far as the DNB, like its predecessors, laid heavy emphasis on literary and intellectual achievement.

Matthews, Calamy Revised (Oxford, 1934), p. xviii. Biographia Britannica (2nd edn), vol. i, p. xxi. The Rambler, 60 (13 Oct. 1750); The Idler, 84 (24 Nov. 1759). Thomas Sprat had expressed the same view in 1668; ‘The Life of Abraham Cowley’, Preface to The Poetical Works of Abraham Cowley (Edinburgh, 1777), vol. i, p. xl. 24 perhaps . . 48 So when Leslie Stephen embarked on the DNB, he had a long tradition on which to draw. The idea of an alphabetically organised dictionary of national biography had been familiar since the Biographia Britannica.

I, p. xxi. The Rambler, 60 (13 Oct. 1750); The Idler, 84 (24 Nov. 1759). Thomas Sprat had expressed the same view in 1668; ‘The Life of Abraham Cowley’, Preface to The Poetical Works of Abraham Cowley (Edinburgh, 1777), vol. i, p. xl. 24 perhaps . . 48 So when Leslie Stephen embarked on the DNB, he had a long tradition on which to draw. The idea of an alphabetically organised dictionary of national biography had been familiar since the Biographia Britannica. 49 The basic format of a DNB life, with its distinctive aesthetic of elegant condensation, giving the maximum amount of information in the minimum of space, had been successively refined by Towers, Aikin and Chalmers and was admirably exemplified in the dictionary begun by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.

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