Definition of Biography

A biography is the non- fiction , written history or account of a person’s life. Biographies are intended to give an objective portrayal of a person, written in the third person. Biographers collect information from the subject (if he/she is available), acquaintances of the subject, or in researching other sources such as reference material, experts, records, diaries, interviews, etc. Most biographers intend to present the life story of a person and establish the context of their story for the reader, whether in terms of history and/or the present day. In turn, the reader can be reasonably assured that the information presented about the biographical subject is as true and authentic as possible.

Biographies can be written about a person at any time, no matter if they are living or dead. However, there are limitations to biography as a literary device. Even if the subject is involved in the biographical process, the biographer is restricted in terms of access to the subject’s thoughts or feelings.

Biographical works typically include details of significant events that shape the life of the subject as well as information about their childhood, education, career, and relationships. Occasionally, a biography is made into another form of art such as a film or dramatic production. The musical production of “Hamilton” is an excellent example of a biographical work that has been turned into one of the most popular musical productions in Broadway history.

Common Examples of Biographical Subjects

Most people assume that the subject of a biography must be a person who is famous in some way. However, that’s not always the case. In general, biographical subjects tend to be interesting people who have pioneered something in their field of expertise or done something extraordinary for humanity. In addition, biographical subjects can be people who have experienced something unusual or heartbreaking, committed terrible acts, or who are especially gifted and/or talented.

As a literary device, biography is important because it allows readers to learn about someone’s story and history. This can be enlightening, inspiring, and meaningful in creating connections. Here are some common examples of biographical subjects:

  • political leaders
  • entrepreneurs
  • historical figures
  • serial killers
  • notorious people
  • political activists
  • adventurers/explorers
  • religious leaders
  • military leaders
  • cultural figures

Famous Examples of Biographical Works

The readership for biography tends to be those who enjoy learning about a certain person’s life or overall field related to the person. In addition, some readers enjoy the literary form of biography independent of the subject. Some biographical works become well-known due to either the person’s story or the way the work is written, gaining a readership of people who may not otherwise choose to read biography or are unfamiliar with its form.

Here are some famous examples of biographical works that are familiar to many readers outside of biography fans:

  • Alexander Hamilton (Ron Chernow)
  • Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Caroline Fraser)
  • Steve Jobs (Walter Isaacson)
  • Churchill: A Life (Martin Gilbert)
  • The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (Simon Winchester)
  • A Beautiful Mind (Sylvia Nasar)
  • The Black Rose (Tananarive Due)
  • John Adams (David McCullough)
  • Into the Wild ( Jon Krakauer )
  • John Brown (W.E.B. Du Bois)
  • Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo (Hayden Herrera)
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot)
  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Doris Kearns Goodwin)
  • Shirley Jackson : A Rather Haunted Life ( Ruth Franklin)
  • the stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit (Michael Finkel)

Difference Between Biography, Autobiography, and Memoir

Biography, autobiography , and memoir are the three main forms used to tell the story of a person’s life. Though there are similarities between these forms, they have distinct differences in terms of the writing, style , and purpose.

A biography is an informational narrative and account of the life history of an individual person, written by someone who is not the subject of the biography. An autobiography is the story of an individual’s life, written by that individual. In general, an autobiography is presented chronologically with a focus on key events in the person’s life. Since the writer is the subject of an autobiography, it’s written in the first person and considered more subjective than objective, like a biography. In addition, autobiographies are often written late in the person’s life to present their life experiences, challenges, achievements, viewpoints, etc., across time.

Memoir refers to a written collection of a person’s significant memories, written by that person. Memoir doesn’t generally include biographical information or chronological events unless it’s relevant to the story being presented. The purpose of memoir is reflection and an intention to share a meaningful story as a means of creating an emotional connection with the reader. Memoirs are often presented in a narrative style that is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Examples of Biography in Literature

An important subset of biography is literary biography. A literary biography applies biographical study and form to the lives of artists and writers. This poses some complications for writers of literary biographies in that they must balance the representation of the biographical subject, the artist or writer, as well as aspects of the subject’s literary works. This balance can be difficult to achieve in terms of judicious interpretation of biographical elements within an author’s literary work and consideration of the separate spheres of the artist and their art.

Literary biographies of artists and writers are among some of the most interesting biographical works. These biographies can also be very influential for readers, not only in terms of understanding the artist or writer’s personal story but the context of their work or literature as well. Here are some examples of well-known literary biographies:

Example 1:  Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay  (Nancy Milford)

One of the first things Vincent explained to Norma was that there was a certain freedom of language in the Village that mustn’t shock her. It wasn’t vulgar. ‘So we sat darning socks on Waverly Place and practiced the use of profanity as we stitched. Needle in, . Needle out, piss. Needle in, . Needle out, c. Until we were easy with the words.’

This passage reflects the way in which Milford is able to characterize St. Vincent Millay as a person interacting with her sister. Even avid readers of a writer’s work are often unaware of the artist’s private and personal natures, separate from their literature and art. Milford reflects the balance required on the part of a literary biographer of telling the writer’s life story without undermining or interfering with the meaning and understanding of the literature produced by the writer. Though biographical information can provide some influence and context for a writer’s literary subjects, style, and choices , there is a distinction between the fictional world created by a writer and the writer’s “real” world. However, a literary biographer can illuminate the writer’s story so that the reader of both the biography and the biographical subject’s literature finds greater meaning and significance.

Example 2:  The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens  (Claire Tomalin)

The season of domestic goodwill and festivity must have posed a problem to all good Victorian family men with more than one family to take care of, particularly when there were two lots of children to receive the demonstrations of paternal love.

Tomalin’s literary biography of Charles Dickens reveals the writer’s extramarital relationship with a woman named Nelly Ternan. Tomalin presents the complications that resulted for Dickens from this relationship in terms of his personal and family life as well as his professional writing and literary work. Revealing information such as an extramarital relationship can influence the way a reader may feel about the subject as a person, and in the case of literary biography it can influence the way readers feel about the subject’s literature as well. Artists and writers who are beloved , such as Charles Dickens, are often idealized by their devoted readers and society itself. However, as Tomalin’s biography of Dickens indicates, artists and writers are complicated and as subject to human failings as anyone else.

Example 3:  Virginia Woolf  (Hermione Lee)

‘A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living’: so too with the biography of that self. And just as lives don’t stay still, so life-writing can’t be fixed and finalised. Our ideas are shifting about what can be said, our knowledge of human character is changing. The biographer has to pioneer, going ‘ahead of the rest of us, like the miner’s canary, testing the atmosphere , detecting falsity, unreality, and the presence of obsolete conventions’. So, ‘There are some stories which have to be retold by each generation’. She is talking about the story of Shelley, but she could be talking about her own life-story.

In this passage, Lee is able to demonstrate what her biographical subject, Virginia Woolf, felt about biography and a person telling their own or another person’s story. Literary biographies of well-known writers can be especially difficult to navigate in that both the author and biographical subject are writers, but completely separate and different people. As referenced in this passage by Lee, Woolf was aware of the subtleties and fluidity present in a person’s life which can be difficult to judiciously and effectively relay to a reader on the part of a biographer. In addition, Woolf offers insight into the fact that biographers must make choices in terms of what information is presented to the reader and the context in which it is offered, making them a “miner’s canary” as to how history will view and remember the biographical subject.

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What Is a Biography?

What is a biography?

Learning from the experiences of others is what makes us human.

At the core of every biography is the story of someone’s humanity. While biographies come in many sub-genres, the one thing they all have in common is loyalty to the facts, as they’re available at the time. Here’s how we define biography, a look at its origins, and some popular types.

“Biography” Definition

A biography is simply the story of a real person’s life. It could be about a person who is still alive, someone who lived centuries ago, someone who is globally famous, an unsung hero forgotten by history, or even a unique group of people. The facts of their life, from birth to death (or the present day of the author), are included with life-changing moments often taking center stage. The author usually points to the subject’s childhood, coming-of-age events, relationships, failures, and successes in order to create a well-rounded description of her subject.

Biographies require a great deal of research. Sources of information could be as direct as an interview with the subject providing their own interpretation of their life’s events. When writing about people who are no longer with us, biographers look for primary sources left behind by the subject and, if possible, interviews with friends or family. Historical biographers may also include accounts from other experts who have studied their subject.

The biographer’s ultimate goal is to recreate the world their subject lived in and describe how they functioned within it. Did they change their world? Did their world change them? Did they transcend the time in which they lived? Why or why not? And how? These universal life lessons are what make biographies such a meaningful read.

Origins of the Biography

Greco-Roman literature honored the gods as well as notable mortals. Whether winning or losing, their behaviors were to be copied or seen as cautionary tales. One of the earliest examples written exclusively about humans is Plutarch’s Parallel Lives (probably early 2 nd century AD). It’s a collection of biographies in which a pair of men, one Greek and one Roman, are compared and held up as either a good or bad example to follow.

In the Middle Ages, Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne (around 817 AD) stands out as one of the most famous biographies of its day. Einhard clearly fawns over Charlemagne’s accomplishments throughout, yet it doesn’t diminish the value this biography has brought to centuries of historians since its writing.

Considered the earliest modern biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) by James Boswell looks like the biographies we know today. Boswell conducted interviews, performed years of research, and created a compelling narrative of his subject.

The genre evolves as the 20th century arrives, and with it the first World War. The 1920s saw a boom in autobiographies in response. Robert Graves’ Good-Bye to All That (1929) is a coming-of age story set amid the absurdity of war and its aftermath. That same year, Mahatma Gandhi wrote The Story of My Experiments with Truth , recalling how the events of his life led him to develop his theories of nonviolent rebellion. In this time, celebrity tell-alls also emerged as a popular form of entertainment. With the horrors of World War II and the explosion of the civil rights movement, American biographers of the late 20 th century had much to archive. Instantly hailed as some of the best writing about the war, John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946) tells the stories of six people who lived through those world-altering days. Alex Haley wrote the as-told-to The Autobiography of Malcom X (1965). Yet with biographies, the more things change, the more they stay the same. One theme that persists is a biographer’s desire to cast its subject in an updated light, as in Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair that Shaped a First Lady by Susan Quinn (2016).

Types of Biographies

Contemporary Biography: Authorized or Unauthorized

The typical modern biography tells the life of someone still alive, or who has recently passed. Sometimes these are authorized — written with permission or input from the subject or their family — like Dave Itzkoff’s intimate look at the life and career of Robin Williams, Robin . Unauthorized biographies of living people run the risk of being controversial. Kitty Kelley’s infamous His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra so angered Sinatra, he tried to prevent its publication.

Historical Biography

The wild success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is proof that our interest in historical biography is as strong as ever. Miranda was inspired to write the musical after reading Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton , an epic 800+ page biography intended to cement Hamilton’s status as a great American. Paula Gunn Allen also sets the record straight on another misunderstood historical figure with Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat , revealing details about her tribe, her family, and her relationship with John Smith that are usually missing from other accounts. Historical biographies also give the spotlight to people who died without ever getting the recognition they deserved, such as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks .

Biography of a Group

When a group of people share unique characteristics, they can be the topic of a collective biography. The earliest example of this is Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pirates (1724), which catalogs the lives of notorious pirates and establishes the popular culture images we still associate with them. Smaller groups are also deserving of a biography, as seen in David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street , a mesmerizing behind-the-scenes look at the early years of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña as they establish the folk scene in New York City. Likewise, British royal family fashion is a vehicle for telling the life stories of four iconic royals – Queen Elizabeth II, Diana, Kate, and Meghan – in HRH: So Many Thoughts on Royal Style by style journalist Elizabeth Holmes.


This type of biography is written about one’s self, spanning an entire life up to the point of its writing. One of the earliest autobiographies is Saint Augustine’s The Confessions (400), in which his own experiences from childhood through his religious conversion are told in order to create a sweeping guide to life. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first of six autobiographies that share all the pain of her childhood and the long road that led to her work in the civil rights movement, and a beloved, prize-winning writer.

Memoirs are a type of autobiography, written about a specific but vital aspect of one’s life. In Toil & Trouble , Augusten Burroughs explains how he has lived his life as a witch. Mikel Jollett’s Hollywood Park recounts his early years spent in a cult, his family’s escape, and his rise to success with his band, The Airborne Toxic Event. Barack Obama’s first presidential memoir, A Promised Land , charts his path into politics and takes a deep dive into his first four years in office.

Fictional Biography

Fictional biographies are no substitute for a painstakingly researched scholarly biography, but they’re definitely meant to be more entertaining. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler constructs Zelda and F. Scott’s wild, Jazz-Age life, told from Zelda’s point of view. The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict brings readers into the secret life of Hollywood actress and wartime scientist, Hedy Lamarr. These imagined biographies, while often whimsical, still respect the form in that they depend heavily on facts when creating setting, plot, and characters.

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Definition of biography

Did you know.

So You've Been Asked to Submit a Biography

In a library, the word biography refers both to a kind of book and to a section where books of that kind are found. Each biography tells the story of a real person's life. A biography may be about someone who lived long ago, recently, or even someone who is still living, though in the last case it must necessarily be incomplete. The term autobiography refers to a biography written by the person it's about. Autobiographies are of course also necessarily incomplete.

Sometimes biographies are significantly shorter than a book—something anyone who's been asked to submit a biography for, say, a conference or a community newsletter will be glad to know. Often the word in these contexts is shortened to bio , a term that can be both a synonym of biography and a term for what is actually a biographical sketch: a brief description of a person's life. These kinds of biographies—bios—vary, but many times they are only a few sentences long. Looking at bios that have been used in the same context can be a useful guide in determining what to put in your own.

Examples of biography in a Sentence

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'biography.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

Late Greek biographia , from Greek bi- + -graphia -graphy

1665, in the meaning defined at sense 2

Dictionary Entries Near biography


Cite this Entry

“Biography.” Dictionary , Merriam-Webster, Accessed 2 Apr. 2024.

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What Is a Biography? Definition & 25+ Examples

Have you ever wondered what lies beneath the surface of history’s most influential figures?

Imagine a chance to delve into the intricate tapestry of their lives, unraveling the threads that have woven together the very essence of their character, and unearthing the pivotal moments that shaped their destinies.

Welcome to the enthralling world of biographies, where you are invited to embark on a captivating journey into the lives of the extraordinary. Prepare to be captivated by the compelling tales of human resilience, ingenuity, and ambition that lie at the heart of each biography.

Table of Contents

Defining Biography

A biography is a detailed account of a person’s life, written by someone other than the subject. The term “biography” is derived from two Greek words: “bio,” which means life, and “graphy,” which signifies writing. Thus, a biography is the written history of someone’s life, offering an in-depth look at their experiences, achievements, and challenges.

Biographies typically focus on the life of notable individuals, such as historical figures or celebrities, and provide a comprehensive view of their personal and professional journey.

Biographers, the authors of these works, aim to offer an accurate, well-researched portrayal of their subjects by studying various sources and conducting interviews if possible. This thorough research and attention to detail ensure that the resulting narrative is both informative and engaging.

Biographies are a subgenre of non-fiction literature, as they chronicle the lives of real people. However, not all life stories fall under the category of biography.

Autobiographies and memoirs, for instance, focus on the author’s own experiences and are written from a first-person perspective. While autobiographies aim to present an overarching narrative of the author’s life, memoirs tend to focus on specific incidents or periods.

When crafting a biography, it is essential for the biographer to maintain a neutral tone, avoiding any judgment or personal bias. This objectivity allows readers to form their opinions based on the presented facts, gaining a broader understanding of the subject.

Elements of a Biography

A well-crafted biography contains several key elements that provide a comprehensive picture of the subject’s life. These elements help readers gain a deeper understanding of the subject while fostering an emotional connection. Below are some essential aspects of a biography:

Personal and Family Background

The personal and family background section of a biography provides an essential foundation for understanding the subject’s journey and the factors that shaped their life. By exploring the subject’s early years, readers gain insight into the environment and experiences that influenced their character, values, and aspirations.

This section typically begins with an overview of the subject’s birthplace, family origins, and cultural heritage. It delves into the family dynamics, including descriptions of the subject’s parents, siblings, and extended family, shedding light on the relationships that played a crucial role in their development.

The personal and family background section also addresses significant life events, challenges, and milestones that occurred during the subject’s upbringing. These formative experiences may include pivotal moments, such as moving to a new city, attending a particular school, or encountering a mentor who had a lasting impact on their life.

Education and Career

The education and career section of a biography is crucial for understanding the intellectual and professional development of the subject. By tracing the subject’s academic journey and career progression, readers gain a clearer picture of the knowledge, skills, and experiences that shaped their path and contributed to their success.

This section begins by outlining the subject’s educational background, including the schools they attended, the degrees or qualifications they obtained, and any specialized training they received. It also highlights the subject’s academic achievements, such as scholarships, awards, or distinctions, and any influential mentors or teachers who played a significant role in their intellectual growth.

The education and career section also delves into the subject’s professional life, chronicling their work history, job titles, and key responsibilities. It explores the subject’s career trajectory, examining how they transitioned between roles or industries and the factors that influenced their choices.

Major Events and Turning Points

The major events and turning points section of a biography delves into the pivotal moments and experiences that significantly influenced the subject’s life, shaping their character, values, and destiny.

By exploring these transformative events, readers gain a deeper understanding of the forces and circumstances that drove the subject’s actions and choices, as well as the challenges and triumphs they faced along the way.

This section encompasses a wide range of events, which could include personal milestones, such as marriage, the birth of children, or the loss of a loved one.

These personal events often provide insights into the subject’s emotional landscape and reveal the support systems, relationships, and personal values that sustained them through difficult times or propelled them to greater heights.

Influences and Inspirations

The influences and inspirations section of a biography delves into the individuals, ideas, and events that had a profound impact on the subject’s beliefs, values, and aspirations.

By understanding the forces that shaped the subject’s worldview, readers gain a deeper appreciation for the motivations driving their actions and decisions, as well as the creative and intellectual foundations upon which their accomplishments were built.

This section often begins by identifying the key figures who played a significant role in the subject’s life, such as family members, mentors, peers, or historical figures they admired.

It explores the nature of these relationships and how they shaped the subject’s perspectives, values, and ambitions. These influential individuals can provide valuable insights into the subject’s personal growth and development, revealing the sources of inspiration and guidance that fueled their journey.

The influences and inspirations section also delves into the ideas and philosophies that resonated with the subject and shaped their worldview. This could include an exploration of the subject’s religious, political, or philosophical beliefs, as well as the books, theories, or artistic movements that inspired them.

This section examines the events, both personal and historical, that impacted the subject’s life and inspired their actions. These could include moments of personal transformation, such as a life-altering experience or an epiphany, or broader societal events, such as wars, social movements, or technological innovations.

Contributions and Impact

The contributions and impact section of a biography is pivotal in conveying the subject’s lasting significance, both in their chosen profession and beyond. By detailing their achievements, innovations, and legacies, this section helps readers grasp the extent of the subject’s influence and the ways in which their work has shaped the world around them.

This section begins by highlighting the subject’s key accomplishments within their profession, such as breakthroughs, discoveries, or innovative techniques they developed. It delves into the processes and challenges they faced along the way, providing valuable insights into their creativity, determination, and problem-solving abilities.

The contributions and impact section also explores the subject’s broader influence on society, culture, or the world at large. This could include their involvement in social or political movements, their philanthropic endeavors, or their role as a cultural icon.

In addition to discussing the subject’s immediate impact, this section also considers their lasting legacy, exploring how their work has continued to inspire and shape subsequent generations.

This could involve examining the subject’s influence on their successors, the institutions or organizations they helped establish, or the enduring relevance of their ideas and achievements in contemporary society.

Personal Traits and Characteristics

The personal traits and characteristics section of a biography brings the subject to life, offering readers an intimate glimpse into their personality, qualities, and views.

This section often begins by outlining the subject’s defining personality traits, such as their temperament, values, and passions. By exploring these attributes, readers gain insight into the subject’s character and the motivations driving their actions and decisions.

These qualities could include their perseverance, curiosity, empathy, or sense of humor, which may help explain their achievements, relationships, and outlook on life.

The personal traits and characteristics section also delves into the subject’s views and beliefs, offering a window into their thoughts and opinions on various topics. This could include their perspectives on politics, religion, culture, or social issues, providing readers with a clearer understanding of the context in which they operated and the factors that shaped their worldview.

Anecdotes and personal stories play a crucial role in illustrating the subject’s personality and characteristics, as they offer concrete examples of their behavior, actions, or interactions with others.

Quotes and first-hand accounts from the subject or those who knew them well can also be invaluable in portraying their personal traits and characteristics. These accounts offer unique insights into the subject’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences, allowing readers to see the world through their eyes and better understand their character.

Types of Biographies

Biographies come in various forms and styles, each presenting unique perspectives on the lives of individuals. Some of the most common types of biographies are discussed in the following sub-sections.

Historical Fiction Biography

Historical fiction biographies artfully weave together factual information with imaginative elements, creating a vibrant tapestry of the past. By staying true to the core of a historical figure’s life and accomplishments, these works offer a unique window into their world while granting authors the creative freedom to delve deeper into their emotions, relationships, and personal struggles.

Such biographies strike a delicate balance, ensuring that the essence of the individual remains intact while allowing for fictional embellishments to bring their story to life. This captivating blend of fact and fiction serves to humanize these iconic figures, making their experiences more relatable and engaging for readers who embark on a journey through the pages of history.

Here are several examples of notable historical fiction biographies:

  • “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel (2009)
  • “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain (2011)
  • “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Tracy Chevalier (1999)
  • “The Other Boleyn Girl” by Philippa Gregory (2001)
  • “Loving Frank” by Nancy Horan (2007)

Academic Biography

Academic biographies stand as meticulously researched and carefully crafted scholarly works, dedicated to presenting an accurate and comprehensive account of a subject’s life.

Authored by experts or researchers well-versed in their field, these biographies adhere to rigorous standards of accuracy, sourcing, and objectivity. They delve into the intricacies of a person’s life, achievements, and impact, scrutinizing every aspect with scholarly precision.

Intended for an educated audience, academic biographies serve as valuable resources for those seeking a deeper understanding of the subject’s contributions and influence. By placing the individual within the broader context of their time, these works illuminate the complex web of factors that shaped their lives and legacies.

While academic biographies may not always carry the same narrative flair as their fictional counterparts, their commitment to factual integrity and thorough analysis make them indispensable resources for scholars, students, and enthusiasts alike

Here are several examples of notable academic biographies:

  • “Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson (2007)
  • “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson (2011)
  • “John Adams” by David McCullough (2001)
  • “Alexander the Great” by Robin Lane Fox (1973)
  • “Marie Curie: A Life” by Susan Quinn (1995)

Authorized Biographies

Authorized biographies offer a unique perspective on the lives of their subjects, as they are written with the explicit consent and, often, active participation of the individual in question.

This collaboration between the biographer and the subject can lead to a more accurate, detailed, and intimate portrayal of the person’s life, as the author is granted access to a wealth of personal information, documents, and anecdotes that might otherwise be inaccessible.

When working on an authorized biography, the biographer is typically given permission to access personal documents, such as letters, diaries, and photographs, which can provide invaluable insights into the subject’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences.

This primary source material allows the biographer to construct a narrative that is grounded in fact and captures the essence of the individual’s life and personality.

Here are several examples of notable authorized biographies:

  • “Mandela: The Authorized Biography” by Anthony Sampson (1999)
  • “Marilyn Monroe: The Biography” by Donald Spoto (1993)
  • “Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words” by Malka Marom (2014)
  • “The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life” by Alice Schroeder (2008)
  • “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik (2015)

Fictionalized Academic Biography

Fictionalized academic biographies merge the best of both worlds, combining the rigorous research and scholarly integrity of academic biographies with the engaging storytelling of historical fiction.

Authors of these works expertly navigate the delicate balance between maintaining factual accuracy and venturing into the realm of imagination.

This approach allows them to explore the subject’s personal life, relationships, and the broader historical context in a compelling manner, while ensuring the narrative remains firmly rooted in well-researched facts.

Here are several examples of notable fictionalized academic biographies:

  • “The Women” by T.C. Boyle (2009)
  • “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” by Therese Anne Fowler (2013)
  • “The Marriage of Opposites” by Alice Hoffman (2015)
  • “Vanessa and Her Sister” by Priya Parmar (2014)
  • “The Last Days of Night” by Graham Moore (2016)

Prophetic Biography

Prophetic biographies delve into the rich and profound narratives of religious figures or prophets, meticulously weaving together insights from sacred texts, religious traditions, and historical accounts.

By providing a comprehensive portrayal of the individual’s life, teachings, and impact on society, these biographies serve as an invaluable resource for understanding the pivotal role these figures played in shaping the course of religious history and the lives of the faithful.

Here are several examples of notable prophetic biographies:

  • “Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources” by Martin Lings (1983)
  • “The Life of Moses” by F.B. Meyer (1893)
  • “The Life of the Buddha: According to the Pali Canon” by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli (1972)
  • “The Quest of the Historical Jesus” by Albert Schweitzer (1906)
  • “The Lives of the Saints” by Alban Butler (1756)

Biography Development Process

A biography is a comprehensive written account of an individual’s life, and the development process involves several essential components to ensure the biography’s accuracy and readability.

A biographer’s primary responsibility is to conduct extensive research in order to gather a comprehensive array of facts about the subject. This meticulous process involves reviewing various documents and sources that shed light on the individual’s life and experiences, as well as the historical context in which they lived.

Key documents, such as birth and death certificates, provide essential information about the subject’s origins and family background. Personal correspondence, letters, and diaries offer invaluable insights into the subject’s thoughts, emotions, relationships, and experiences. News articles, on the other hand, can reveal public perceptions of the subject, as well as their impact on society and culture.

Archives often serve as treasure troves of information for biographers, as they contain a wealth of primary sources that can help illuminate the subject’s life and times. These archives may include collections of personal papers, photographs, audio recordings, and other materials that offer first-hand accounts of the individual’s experiences or shed light on their accomplishments and impact.

Consulting relevant books and articles is another crucial aspect of a biographer’s research process, as these secondary sources provide context, analysis, and interpretation of the subject’s life and work.

By delving into the existing scholarship and engaging with the works of other researchers, biographers can solidify their understanding of the individual and the historical circumstances in which they lived.

Interviewing people who knew the subject personally is a vital component of a biographer’s research process, as it allows them to access unique insights, personal stories, and firsthand accounts of the individual’s life.

Friends, family members, co-workers, and colleagues can all offer valuable perspectives on the subject’s character, relationships, achievements, and challenges, thereby enriching the biographer’s understanding of their life and experiences.

While subjective anecdotes offer a more intimate glimpse into the subject’s personality and personal life, it is essential for biographers to balance these accounts with factual research.

By corroborating and contextualizing personal stories with objective information gleaned from primary and secondary sources, biographers can ensure that their portrayal of the individual’s life remains accurate and well-rounded.

This process of balancing subjective anecdotes with factual research also allows biographers to present a more nuanced and comprehensive view of their subject. By weaving together personal stories with historical context, biographers can create a richer and more engaging narrative that captures the complexity and multifaceted nature of the individual’s life.

In addition, by considering various perspectives and sources of information, biographers can address potential biases or discrepancies in their account, resulting in a more reliable and credible portrayal of the subject.

This careful attention to detail and commitment to accuracy not only enhances the quality of the biography but also helps establish trust between the biographer and their readers.

Chronological Narration

Organizing a biography in a chronological manner is a highly effective approach, as it allows readers to follow the subject’s life events in a logical and coherent sequence.

By presenting the information in a linear fashion, the biographer enables readers to trace the subject’s journey from their early years to their later accomplishments, making it easier to understand the context and progression of their life.

To effectively arrange a chronological narrative, the biographer should begin by highlighting significant milestones and accomplishments in the subject’s life. These key events serve as anchor points in the story, helping to structure the narrative and maintain the reader’s interest.

By focusing on these pivotal moments, the biographer can illustrate the subject’s growth, development, and achievements over time, providing a clear and engaging overview of their life’s trajectory.


Contextualizing the subject within their historical and cultural framework is a crucial aspect of biographical writing, as it enables readers to gain a deeper understanding of the individual’s life, choices, and significance.

Embedding the subject within their historical context involves examining the political, social, and economic landscape of the time. This includes exploring major events, trends, and issues that affected the subject’s life and decisions, such as wars, social movements, technological advancements, or cultural shifts.

Additionally, considering the subject’s cultural context is essential for understanding their beliefs, values, and creative expression. This involves examining the artistic, intellectual, and philosophical currents of the time, which may have influenced the subject’s work, ideas, or relationships.

Moreover, contextualizing the subject within their historical and cultural framework can help to humanize them, revealing the complexities, contradictions, and struggles that are often inherent in the human experience.

This approach offers readers a more nuanced and empathetic understanding of the subject, allowing them to see the person as a product of their time and circumstances, rather than as an isolated figure.

Famous Biographies and Biographers

The life of samuel johnson, ll.d. by james boswell (1791).

“The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.” is a biography of the English writer and literary critic Samuel Johnson, written by his friend and contemporary James Boswell. Published in 1791, it is often considered one of the greatest biographies in the English language and a pioneering work in the development of modern biography as a literary genre.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was a prominent figure in 18th-century English literature, known for his wide-ranging knowledge, wit, and moral authority. He is best remembered for his dictionary, “A Dictionary of the English Language,” published in 1755, which became the standard English dictionary for over a century. He was also a prolific essayist, poet, and critic.

James Boswell (1740-1795) was a Scottish lawyer, diarist, and author who became friends with Johnson in 1763. Over the course of their friendship, Boswell made detailed notes of their conversations and observations, which he later used as the basis for his biography.

“The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.” is a comprehensive and vivid portrait of Johnson’s life, character, and work. Boswell covers Johnson’s early years, education, and struggles with poverty and illness, as well as his rise to prominence as a writer and his involvement in the vibrant literary circles of 18th-century London.

The biography also delves into Johnson’s friendships and relationships, including his long association with Hester Thrale, a prominent society hostess, and writer.

What sets Boswell’s biography apart is his skill in capturing Johnson’s personality, wit, and conversation. By presenting Johnson’s thoughts and opinions on a wide range of topics, as well as anecdotes and reminiscences from those who knew him, Boswell creates a vivid and engaging portrait of his subject.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010)

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is a non-fiction book written by Rebecca Skloot, published in 2010. The book tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman whose cancer cells were taken without her knowledge or consent during a biopsy in 1951. These cells, known as HeLa cells, became the first immortal human cell line, reproducing indefinitely under laboratory conditions.

HeLa cells have been used extensively in medical research, contributing to significant scientific breakthroughs, such as the development of the polio vaccine, gene mapping, and cancer research.

Henrietta Lacks was a young mother of five when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer at the age of 31. She received treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where a sample of her cancerous tissue was taken without her knowledge. Henrietta passed away in 1951, but her cells continued to live on, revolutionizing medical research.

Rebecca Skloot spent more than a decade researching Henrietta Lacks’ life and the scientific history of HeLa cells. Skloot also interviewed Lacks’ surviving family members, who were unaware of Henrietta’s contribution to science until the 1970s.

The book explores the ethical issues surrounding the use of human tissue in research, the question of consent, and the lack of compensation for the Lacks family.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (2004)

“Alexander Hamilton” is a comprehensive biography of the American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, written by historian and biographer Ron Chernow. Published in 2004, the book provides an in-depth look into Hamilton’s life, from his humble beginnings in the West Indies to his significant contributions as a statesman, economist, and influential figure in early American history.

Chernow’s biography delves into Hamilton’s early life as an orphan in the Caribbean, his immigration to the American colonies, and his education. It also explores his involvement in the American Revolutionary War, where he served as an aide to General George Washington and later as an artillery officer.

The book details Hamilton’s role in the development of the United States Constitution and his work as the first Secretary of the Treasury under President Washington, where he was instrumental in establishing the nation’s financial system.

“Alexander Hamilton” also examines Hamilton’s personal life, including his relationships, marriage, and infamous extramarital affair, as well as his longstanding political rivalries with figures such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Aaron Burr. The biography concludes with the story of Hamilton’s tragic death in a duel with Burr in 1804.

It received critical acclaim and won several awards, including the George Washington Book Prize. The biography also inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to create the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” which premiered in 2015 and went on to achieve widespread popularity and numerous accolades, further solidifying Alexander Hamilton’s place in popular culture and history.

Notable Biographies in Different Fields

Science and technology.

Biographies in the field of science and technology offer fascinating insights into the lives and minds of extraordinary individuals who have made significant advancements in their respective fields.

These biographies often provide an in-depth look at the personal and professional lives of scientists, inventors, engineers, and other innovators, highlighting their discoveries, inventions, and contributions to human knowledge and progress.

Arts and Literature

Biographies of artists, actors, and writers often provide captivating and inspiring accounts of the lives of these creative individuals. By examining their personal and professional journeys, these biographies allow readers to gain a deeper understanding of the inspirations, motivations, and challenges that have shaped their subjects’ artistic achievements.

These biographies often delve into the early lives of their subjects, exploring formative experiences that may have influenced their creative paths. They also examine the artistic processes and the development of the subjects’ distinctive styles, providing valuable insights into their creative methodologies, influences, and inspirations.

Sports and Athletics

Biographies of athletes provide riveting accounts of the lives and careers of remarkable individuals who have achieved greatness in the world of sports. These stories often serve as powerful sources of inspiration, showcasing the dedication, perseverance, and triumphs of athletes who have overcome obstacles and pushed the boundaries of human potential.

These biographies delve into the formative experiences of their subjects, exploring how early influences, innate talent, and personal motivations led them to pursue athletic excellence. They also provide insights into the rigorous training regimens, discipline, and sacrifices that athletes make to achieve their goals, highlighting the incredible determination and work ethic that underpin their success.

Additionally, biographies of athletes often touch on the personal challenges and setbacks these individuals have faced, such as injuries, controversies, or personal struggles.

Historical Figures

Biographies of historical figures offer a unique window into the lives, personalities, and experiences of individuals who have left lasting impacts on the world. By delving into the stories of these influential people, readers can gain a deeper understanding of the political, social, and cultural contexts that shaped their actions and decisions, as well as the lasting legacies they left behind.

These biographies often provide richly detailed accounts of their subjects’ lives, including their upbringing, education, relationships, and personal struggles. By exploring the complex facets of these individuals, biographies help to humanize historical figures, providing a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of their motivations, beliefs, and actions.

In addition to personal narratives, biographies of historical figures often weave together broader historical contexts and events. This allows readers to gain valuable insights into the social, political, and cultural forces that influenced their subjects’ lives and decisions.

Writing a Compelling Biography

A captivating biography requires more than just a simple retelling of a person’s life events. It delves into their personal experiences, relationships, and accomplishments, while maintaining an objective and authentic approach.

Being Objective and Authentic

An essential aspect of a well-written biography is its objectivity. The narrative should portray the real person, depicting their experiences and beliefs accurately.

While it can be tempting to embellish facts or minimize flaws, striving for authenticity is crucial in presenting a credible account. This involves thorough research and verification of facts, even when they contradict the author’s initial assumptions.

Authenticity also extends to the respectful portrayal of a subject’s relationships and exploration of their inner world, while avoiding speculation or gossip.

Balancing Personal and Public Life

When writing a biography, one must strike a balance between the subject’s personal and public life. This includes weaving together stories from their childhood, personal relationships, and major life events that may have shaped their character. The integration of both personal and public aspects contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of their vita.

However, careful consideration must be given to privacy concerns, and it is important to determine which aspects of the individual’s life are appropriate to disclose. Ultimately, the reader should gain insight into the person’s journey without feeling intrusive.

Creating Engaging Storylines

Just as in a novel, a great biography should feature engaging storylines that keep readers interested. This can be achieved by organizing the narrative around important events, challenges, and accomplishments that are relevant and compelling. To maintain a smooth flow, strategically transitioning between these key moments helps maintain reader interest.

The use of different perspectives, anecdotes, and historical context can also enhance the storyline. Paint vivid pictures of the settings, allowing readers to immerse themselves in the subject’s world. Furthermore, showcasing the subject’s resilience, growth, and impact, can contribute to a powerful and memorable biography.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can biographies be fictional or purely factual.

Biographies usually aim to present an accurate and factual representation of someone’s life. However, some authors might take creative liberties and incorporate fictionalized elements for dramatic or storytelling purposes.

It is crucial for readers to be aware of the author’s intentions and approach when reading such biographical works.

Can biographies be biased?

Biographies, like any form of writing, can be subject to biases depending on the author’s perspective, beliefs, or intentions.

It is essential for readers to critically evaluate biographies by considering factors such as the author’s credentials, potential biases, and the sources used in the research process.

By comparing multiple biographies on the same subject or cross-referencing with other sources, readers can develop a more comprehensive and balanced understanding of the individual’s life and achievements.

Are biographies always based on famous or historical figures?

While biographies often focus on famous or historical figures, they can also be written about lesser-known individuals with compelling stories or unique experiences.

These “everyday” biographies can provide valuable insights into the lives of ordinary people and the challenges they face, offering a broader understanding of the human experience and fostering empathy and connection among readers.

Are there any ethical considerations when writing a biography?

Yes, ethical considerations play a significant role in writing biographies.

Biographers must respect the privacy and dignity of their subjects, particularly when dealing with sensitive or personal information. They should also strive for accuracy and fairness, avoiding sensationalism or misrepresentation of facts.

Additionally, biographers should acknowledge and address any potential biases or conflicts of interest that may affect their portrayal of the subject.

Biographies offer us unparalleled access to the lives and legacies of remarkable individuals, spanning diverse genres and approaches.

From historical fiction to academic rigor, prophetic accounts to fictionalized narratives, biographies captivate our imagination and enrich our understanding of the human experience. These literary gems remind us that behind every great achievement lies a story of struggle, triumph, and unwavering determination.

So, let us continue to explore these remarkable journeys, as we delve deeper into the pages of history and the hearts of those who have shaped our world.

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Biographical Resources: A Research Guide: National and International Biographies

  • Introduction
  • National and International Biographies
  • Biographical Indexes
  • K. G. Saur Indexes & Microfiche
  • Subject Biographies
  • Dissertations and Theses
  • Research Help

International Biographies

  • Dictionary of World Biography 5th edition, JSTOR ebooks; online only; open access Comprehensive, short-entry articles about persons worldwide throughout history, both living and dead. Part of the ANU Lives Series in Biography, an initiative of the National Centre for Biography in the History Program in the Research School of Social Sciences at The Australian National University. The National Centre was established in 2008 to extend the work of the Australian Dictionary of Biography
  • Dictionary of African Biography Oxford, 2012. "From the pharaohs to Frantz Fanon, Dictionary of African Biography provides a comprehensive overview of the lives of the men and women who shaped Africa’s history." --Publisher's description
  • Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography Oxford, 2016. Online only. "a comprehensive overview of the lives of Caribbeans and Afro-Latin Americans who are historically significant..., unprecedented in scale, covering the entire Caribbean, and the Afro-descended populations throughout Latin America, including people who spoke and wrote Creole, Dutch, English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish."
  • Visual History Archive [of the USC Shoah Foundation]. [Los Angeles, CA]: USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education; online only. Contains more than 54,000 audiovisual testimonies of survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other acts of genocide, recorded in 63 countries and in 40 languages since 1994. Most testimonies have been terminologically indexed at one-minute segments. Aside from Holocaust testimony, the resource includes (as of 20 July 2018) testimonies from the Armenian Genocide (1915-23), the Nanjing (China) Massacre (1937), the Cambodian Genocide (1975-79), the Guatemalan Genocide (1978-83), the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, and ongoing conflicts in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. Also included are testimonies about contemporary acts of violence against Jews.

National Biographies

These national biographies cover persons no longer living who were prominent in the history of that country (often including its colonial extensions). For exact coverage dates and information on other criteria for inclusion, see the front matter of the individual title. Online versions are regularly updated with new entries.

  • American National Biography. Online version of the standard national biography of the United States. Profiles of more than 23,000 notable American women and men from all eras of U.S. history who are no longer alive. The ANB Online features thousands of illustrations, thousands of hyperlinked cross-references, links to select web sites, and archival sources. Articles are updated and added regularly. The ANB supersedes the Dictionary of American Biography, the previous standard national biography of the United States. For persons not listed in the ANB, check the less authoritative, older National Cyclopaedia of American Biography (Call number: Olin Reference, CT 213 .N27) and the K. G. Saur index and microfiche collection of biographical dictionaries.
  • African American National Biography Entries integrated into the Biography section of the Oxford African American Studies Center . "Covering African American life for almost five centuries, from the arrival of Esteban in Spanish Florida in 1528 to notable black citizens of the present day, this major reference project collects and resurrects the lives of over 5,000 African Americans." [Introduction] New biographies added regularly.
  • The Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography Berkshire, 2014. "In 135 entries, written by some of the world's leading China scholars, the Dictionary takes the reader from the important figures of ancient China to Communist leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping." [catalog summary]
  • Diccionario Biográfico Español . 50 volumes. Call Number: Library Annex CT 1343 .D52 2009 Publication Date: 2009-2013 The premier biographical dictionary of Spain.
  • Dictionary of Canadian Biography. online version of the standard Canadian national biography. Full coverage for individuals who played an important role in the formation of what is now Canada who died between the years 1000 and 1930 or whose last known date of activity falls within these years. Additional biographies cover 1940 to 2000. Annotated bibliographies include substantial listings of archival collections.
  • Deutsche Biographische Enzyklopädie . 12 volumes. Call Number: Olin Library Reference CT 759 .D48 1995 For an more extensive version of German biography, available online, see Elektronische Allgemeine deutsche Biographie , below. See also Deutsches Biographisches Archiv from K.G. Saur.
  • Dictionary of German Biography . 10 volumes. by Walther Killy; Rudolf Vierhaus; Dietrich von Engelhardt Call Number: Olin Library Reference CT 759 .D48 2001 Publication Date: 2001 - 2006 München: K.G. Saur. We also have the German language edition. See above.
  • Dictionary of Irish Biography. Contains over 9,000 signed biographical articles on the careers of Irish men and women who made a significant contribution from the earliest times to the year 2010 in Ireland and abroad in all fields of endeavor. Also includes articles on people born outside Ireland who had noteworthy careers in Ireland. Articles may be searched by name, gender, birth or death place, birth or death dates, religion, occupation, contributor, or keywords. Articles will be added each year to cover people who died since the previous update.
  • Elektronische Allgemeine deutsche Biographie: Herausgegeben von der Historischen Kommission bei der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek. Also known as Deutsche Biographie. Searchable database for Allgemeine deutsche biographie (ADB) and Neue deutsche Biographie (NDB). "Certified information on more than 730.000 personalities and families in the German speaking areas from the Middle Ages to the present; namely 50.000 biographies (ADB and NDB) and links to more than 230 online resources (literature, dictionaries, source editions etc.)." [database home page]
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. A continuously updated online version of the standard British national biography which was originally published from 1885-1901 in 66 volumes and updated with decennial supplements. Over 50,000 biographies of people who shaped the history of the British Isles and beyond, from the earliest times to the year 2000 (newer entries in the online version). Portraits and citations to archival collections and major biographies of the subject. See also K. G. Saur index and microfiche.

Other National Biographies

  • Australian Dictionary of Biography . Online . Print volumes through volume 18 (1981-1990): Library Annex CT 2801 .A93. Online version covers persons who died through 1995. Entries for persons who died from 1996 to 2000 is currently in progress.
  • Biografisch Woordenboek van Nederland . 4 volumes. Call Number: Olin Library Stacks CT 1143 .B61 Publication Date: 1979-1994
  • Chinese Lives: The people Who Made a Civilization . Call Number: Kroch Asia Reference DS 734 .M35 2013 Publication Date: 2013 Biographical work for major persons in Chinese history. Description from the catalog record .
  • Dictionnaire de Biographie Française . Call Number: Olin Library Stacks Oversize CT 143 .D55 Publication Date: 1933 to date. 22 volumes so far.
  • Dizionario Biografico degli Italiana . 100 volumes so far. Call Number: Library Annex CT 163 .D62 Publication Date: 1960 to date. Names covered in each volume .
  • Polski Slownik Biograficzny . Call Number: Olin Library Reference CT 1230 .P76 Publication Date: 1935 to date. 54 volumes so far. Names covered in each volume .

Reference Help

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Biographical Sources

Biographical reference sources provide information about people who are or were well-known:  their birth and death dates and descriptions of their lives and accomplishments.  There are two basic types of sources:  sketches or essays containing biographical information; and indexes which refer the user to other biographical materials.

Merriam-Webster's Biographical Dictionary .  Merriam-Webster, 1995. This desk-sized dictionary provides essential information about important people in all professions, from around the world and throughout history:  birth and death dates, nationality, pronunciation of name, and primary accomplishments.  It is valuable for checking on lesser-known persons.  If you can afford only a single biographical reference for your collection, purchase this one.

Who's Who ....   Marquis' Who's Who. This publisher produces an entire family of biographical directories; all but Who Was Who in America contain brief records on national and international contemporary leaders from all fields of endeavor.  Birth dates, family names, educational and career highlights, and current contact information are included in each entry.  The cost will be a problem for smaller libraries; however, these titles are now available, by subscription, on the Web at .

Current Biography.  H. W. Wilson Company.  This is an excellent source for accurate, up-to-date biographies of the men and women who make today's headlines and tomorrow's history.  Published eleven times a year, each issue includes 18 to 20 profiles of newsworthy people, plus obituaries of those profiled in previous issues.  For an extra charge you may purchase a cumulation of all eleven issues at the end of each year.

Contemporary Authors .  Gale. Something About the Author .  Gale. Users will find biographical information on more than 100,000 modern novelists, poets, playwrights, nonfiction writers, journalists and scriptwriters in the Contemporary Authors series.  Something About the Author includes information about an additional 10,000+ children's authors and illustrators.  Entries typically include personal information, addresses, career history, writings, work in progress, biographical/critical sources and authors' comments and/or informative essays about their lives and work.  The Contemporary Authors series is available in print and by subscription on the Web at . 

American National Biography .  24 volumes.  Oxford University Press, 1999. Dictionary of American Biography.  20 volumes + index.  Scribner's, 1989. These are the two most comprehensive biographical encyclopedias for American history.  Both cover men and women who have made significant contributions to American life from the time of the earliest European explorations up to the very recent past.  The Dictionary of American Biography contains almost 20,000 entries, while the American National Biography lists about 17,500. 

Concise Dictionary of American Biography .  5th ed.  2 volumes.  Scribner's, 1997.  This set contains all entries from the base set in an abridged form.

PolySearch - BIOGRAPHIES .  Peter Jacso, creator/Webmaster. Peter Jacso has designed PolySearch , a new type of meta-search engine which allows the patron to run simple searches across several selected ready reference databases at once.  This PolySearch - BIOGRAPHIES site provides access to biographical information about famous and infamous historical figures, politicians, scientists, authors, artists and athletes.  Since the biographical Web sites were selected by Jacso, an award-winning reference librarian, they can be relied upon for reasonably accurate information.  You will find this free site at . 

Biography Index .  H. W. Wilson Company. This source indexes biographical articles from more than 3,000 periodicals, current books of individual and collective biography, and biographical material in otherwise non-biographical books.  In addition to biographies and autobiographies, there are citations to interviews, obituaries, collections of letters, juvenile literature, and bibliographies.  Indexing covers people from antiquity to the present.

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Resolution: Biographies of living people

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The Wikimedia Foundation takes this opportunity to reiterate some core principles related to our shared vision, mission, and values. One of these values which is common to all our projects is a commitment to maintaining a neutral point of view.

In our efforts to offer a source of knowledge that is valuable and useful to all, we have a responsibility to uphold these values by also providing accurate information. Participants in Wikimedia projects have created resources of vast size and scope. As we have emphasized for several years, in addition to the quantity of knowledge that is available, its quality is also an essential matter. The generally high quality of information in Wikimedia projects has been confirmed by a number of studies, but it is important that we always strive to improve. As with any endeavor that provides educational and informational material, errors need to be avoided, especially when they have the potential to cause harm. One area where this applies is when writing about living people.

Increasingly, Wikimedia articles are among the top search engine results for just about any query. That means that when a potential employer, a colleague, friend, neighbor or acquaintance looks for information about a person, they may find it at the Wikimedia sites. As the popularity of the Wikimedia projects grows, so does the editing community's responsibility to ensure articles about living people are neutrally-written, accurate and well-sourced.

As our popularity has grown, some issues have become more prominent:

  • Many people create articles that are overly promotional in tone: about themselves, people they admire, or those they are paid to represent. These are not neutral, and have no place in our projects. Generally, the Wikimedia community protects the projects well against this common problem by deleting or improving hagiographies.
  • People sometimes vandalize articles about living people. The Wikimedia community has developed tools and techniques for counteracting vandalism: in general they seem to work reasonably well.
  • Some articles about living people contain small errors, are poorly-written or poorly-sourced. Articles about people who are only marginally well-known are often neglected, and tend to improve much more slowly over time, if at all.
  • People sometimes make edits designed to smear others. This is difficult to identify and counteract, particularly if the malicious editor is persistent.

The Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees urges the global Wikimedia community to uphold and strengthen our commitment to high-quality, accurate information, by:

  • Ensuring that projects in all languages that describe living people have policies in place calling for special attention to the principles of neutrality and verifiability in those articles;
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Why Russia’s Vast Security Services Fell Short on Deadly Attack

The factors behind the failure to prevent a terrorist attack include a distrust of foreign intelligence, a focus on Ukraine and a distracting political crackdown at home.

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Two masked, heavily armed security personnel standing on a large road at night.

By Paul Sonne ,  Eric Schmitt and Michael Schwirtz

A day before the U.S. embassy in Moscow put out a rare public alert this month about a possible extremist attack at a Russian concert venue, the local C.I.A. station delivered a private warning to Russian officials that included at least one additional detail: The plot in question involved an offshoot of the Islamic State known as ISIS-K.

American intelligence had been tracking the group closely and believed the threat credible. Within days, however, President Vladimir V. Putin was disparaging the warnings, calling them “outright blackmail” and attempts to “intimidate and destabilize our society.”

Three days after he spoke, gunmen stormed Crocus City Hall outside Moscow last Friday night and killed at least 143 people in the deadliest attack in Russia in nearly two decades. ISIS quickly claimed responsibility for the massacre with statements, a photo and a propaganda video.

What made the security lapse seemingly even more notable was that in the days before the massacre Russia’s own security establishment had also acknowledged the domestic threat posed by the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, called Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K.

Internal Russian intelligence reporting that most likely circulated at the highest levels of the government warned of the increased likelihood of an attack in Russia by ethnic Tajiks radicalized by ISIS-K, according to information obtained by the Dossier Center, a London research organization, and reviewed by The New York Times.

Russia has identified the four men suspected of carrying out the attack as being from Tajikistan.

Now, Mr. Putin and his lieutenants are pointing fingers at Ukraine , trying to deflect attention from a question that would be front and center in any nation with an independent media and open debate in its politics: How did Russia’s vast intelligence and law enforcement apparatus, despite significant warnings, fail to head off one of the biggest terrorist attacks in the country in Mr. Putin’s nearly quarter century in power?

The full picture is still unclear, and U.S. and European officials, as well as security and counterterrorism experts, emphasize that even in the best of circumstances, with highly specific information and well-oiled security services, disrupting covert international terror plots is difficult.

But they say the failure most likely resulted from a combination of factors, paramount among them the deep levels of distrust, both within the Russian security establishment and in its relations with other global intelligence agencies.

They also point to the way Mr. Putin has hijacked his domestic security apparatus for an ever-widening political crackdown at home — as well as his focus on crusading against Ukraine and the West — as distractions that probably did not help.

This account of the Russian failure to prevent the concert attack is based on interviews with U.S. and European security officials, security experts and analysts specializing in international intelligence capabilities. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence details.

“The problem is to actually be able to prevent terrorist attacks, you need to have a really good and efficient system of intelligence sharing and intelligence gathering,” said Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russian intelligence, who underscored that trust is needed inside the home agency and with agencies of other countries, as is good coordination. He said, “That’s where you have problems.”

An Expanding Definition of Extremist

Mr. Putin’s definition of what constitutes an extremist began to expand even before his invasion of Ukraine in early 2022.

The agency primarily responsible for combating terrorism in Russia is called the Second Service, a branch of the Federal Security Service, or the F.S.B. It once focused on Islamist extremists, bands of assassins and homegrown neo-Nazi groups.

But as Mr. Putin has advanced his political crackdown at home, its list of targets ballooned to include opposition figures like Aleksei A. Navalny, who died last month in a Russian prison , and his supporters, as well as L.G.B.T.Q. rights activists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, peace activists and other Kremlin critics.

The number of Islamist-related organizations on the register of extremist organizations listed by Russian Federal Service for Financial Monitoring has declined since 2013. At the same time, hundreds of organizations have been added related to Jehovah’s Witnesses, which has its worldwide headquarters in the United States and is viewed with suspicion by the F.S.B.

Security experts said the expanding focus wasted resources and diverted the attention of senior leaders.

The head of the Second Service, for instance, was increasingly involved in areas far afield from counterterrorism; in 2020, according to the U.S. government, he and his branch of the F.S.B. were involved in the poisoning of Mr. Navalny .

“Overall, the F.S.B. is a political police force, and as such it reflects Kremlin concerns,” said Mark Galeotti, a specialist on Russia’s security operations and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “At present, the government is most exercised by political dissent and Ukrainian sabotage, so they are the F.S.B.’s priorities.”

Russia is one of the chief military backers of the Islamic State’s opponents in the Middle East, including Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, making Russian interests a key target of the Islamist extremist group. But as one European security official put it, the Russians were pursuing “fictitious threats” rather than real ones.

Still, U.S. and European officials say the Russian officials tracking Islamist extremists have their own unit within the Second Service that has remained robustly staffed and funded, despite the strains on the security services from the intensifying domestic political crackdown and the war against Ukraine.

The failure to prevent the attack was probably the result of a combination of other factors, including fatigue after being “especially alert” during the period before Russia’s recent presidential election , said a European security official, who tracks the activities of the Russian intelligence services.

There is also evidence that Russian authorities did respond to the warnings this month, at least initially.

Increased Security

On March 7, the day after the C.I.A. station issued the private warning to the Russians, the F.S.B. announced that it had killed two Kazakhs southwest of Moscow, while disrupting an ISIS-K plot to target a synagogue in the capital. U.S. officials thought the raid was possibly a sign that the Russian authorities were springing into action.

Iosif Prigozhin, a well-known Russian music producer, recalled that he and his wife, the Russian pop star Valeriya, who performed at Crocus City Hall this month, noticed how security had increased at the venue in early March; security guards checked people’s bags and cosmetics cases and took other measures he hadn’t seen there before, he said.

“I even called the general director and said, ‘Listen, what’s going on? Are you expecting high-ranking guests?'” Mr. Prigozhin said in an interview. “He said, ‘Iosif, I’ll tell you later.’ He didn’t say anything over the phone. He said it’s necessary — and that’s it.”

Around the same time, the venue’s staff was warned about the possibility of a terrorist attack and instructed on what to do in such an event, said Islam Khalilov, a 15-year-old student who was working in the coat check on the night of the attack, in an interview posted on YouTube .

One of Mr. Putin’s favorite singers, Grigory Leps, was performing there on March 8. Shaman , a singer whose pro-Kremlin jingoism has catapulted him to popularity amid wartime fervor, was scheduled to take the stage a day later.

But the heightened security didn’t ferret out one of the attackers, Shamsidin Fariduni. Employees at the music hall, speaking to Russian media, recalled seeing Mr. Fariduni at the concert venue on March 7. A photo of him in a light brown coat at the venue, verified by The Times, has circulated in the Russian press.

Aleksandr V. Bortnikov, the director of the F.S.B., emphasized Tuesday in public comments that the information the United States provided was “of a general nature.”

“We reacted to this information, of course, and took appropriate measures,” he said, noting that the actions the F.S.B. took to follow up on the tip didn’t confirm it.

The adversarial relationship between Washington and Moscow prevented U.S. officials from sharing any information about the plot beyond what was necessary, out of fear Russian authorities might learn their intelligence sources or methods.

In its March 7 public warning, the U.S. embassy said the risk of a concert venue attack in Moscow was acute for the next 48 hours. U.S. officials say it’s possible Russian authorities pushed hard around the 48-hour warning period but later grew more relaxed and distrustful when an attack didn’t occur.

It is unclear whether U.S. intelligence mistook the timing of the attack or the extremists delayed their plan upon seeing heightened security.

In the subsequent days, internal Russian intelligence reporting — which the Dossier Center said reached the Russian National Security Council — warned specifically about the threat that Tajiks radicalized by ISIS-K posed to Russia. The reporting pointed to the involvement of Tajiks in disrupted plots in Europe and attacks in Iran and Istanbul in recent months. The reporting didn’t mention the Western warnings or a possible Moscow attack.

The Dossier Center was founded in 2017 by the exiled Russian tycoon Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, a longtime opponent of Mr. Putin. The authenticity of its report could not be independently verified.

But by then, the skepticism about the plot had grown within the Russian government, and Mr. Putin felt comfortable deriding the public warnings in a speech to top officers at the F.S.B., using the occasion to attack the West again.

“Because the F.S.B. — and Putin — sees the world through the prism that the United States is out to get Russia, any information that is not consistent with that frame is easily dismissed,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, who previously led analyses of Russia by the U.S. intelligence community.

She said, “That dynamic may have resulted in an intelligence failure with devastating consequences.”

‘Duty to Warn’

When it informed Russia privately about the potential terror plot, the C.I.A. was adhering to 2015 guidance known as “duty to warn” directives, requiring the intelligence establishment to inform “U.S. and non-U.S. persons” of specific threats aimed at “intentional killing, serious bodily injury and kidnapping.”

These directives are relatively rare, but the United States is obliged to issue them, even to adversaries, and has done so with both the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Iranian government in the past year. The warnings aren’t usually made public unless U.S. authorities think the threat could impact American citizens, which was the case in Moscow.

Mr. Putin, in both 2017 and 2019 , thanked the U.S. government for providing information that had helped Russia foil terrorist attacks in St. Petersburg. But analysts say a similar gesture would be impossible in the acrimonious environment he has created since invading Ukraine.

The United States has been tracking ISIS-K activities very closely in recent months, senior officials said. In the course of the monitoring, which has involved electronic intercepts, human informants and other means, American operatives picked up fairly specific information about plotting in Moscow, officials said.

Experts said Russia’s intelligence services have traditionally been focused on domestic terrorist threats emanating from separatist and religious extremist groups in Russia’s North Caucasus region. Large terrorist attacks on Russian soil attributed to international groups like the Islamic State or Al Qaeda have been rare, and the country’s domestic security services have less experience tracking those threats and are less skilled at penetrating Central Asian extremist cells.

In the days since the attack, Moscow has returned the favor to Washington for offering the tip by claiming its warning should be treated as evidence of possible American complicity.

Mr. Bortnikov, the F.S.B. director, said on Tuesday that Islamist extremists alone couldn’t possibly have carried out the attack. He blamed, among others, the United States.

Oleg Matsnev , Safak Timur and Aric Toler contributed reporting.

Paul Sonne is an international correspondent, focusing on Russia and the varied impacts of President Vladimir V. Putin’s domestic and foreign policies, with a focus on the war against Ukraine. More about Paul Sonne

Eric Schmitt is a national security correspondent for The Times, focusing on U.S. military affairs and counterterrorism issues overseas, topics he has reported on for more than three decades. More about Eric Schmitt

Michael Schwirtz is an investigative reporter with the International desk. With The Times since 2006, he previously covered the countries of the former Soviet Union from Moscow and was a lead reporter on a team that won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for articles about Russian intelligence operations. More about Michael Schwirtz


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