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Christopher Warren, What do we know about the ODNB? Elite Lives at Scale, IHR Digital History Seminar, 23 May 2017

Christopher Warren, What do we know about the ODNB? Elite Lives at Scale, IHR Digital History Seminar, 23 May 2017

Live notes, so an incomplete, partial record of what actually happened.

Tags: dhist

My asides in {}



Oxford Dictionary of National Biography widely respected .. awe .. work of 10,000 scholars .. 62 million words .. argument: unique window into changes to elite British culture

Rarely a research object. What do we really know about the ODNB? .. impulse in the face of new methods - especially the quantitative - of an 'but we already knew that' response

.@ChrisVVarren on the tendency to meet digital scholarship with response "we already knew that", after @_akpiper and @matthewdlincoln #dhist

— Peter Webster (@pj_webster) May 23, 2017

Preliminary questions (my guesses after the colon):

  • What is the high water mark (most common year an ODNB entry is alive): 1950
  • Mid point of words in ODNB: 1750
  • Most common parents occupations: politicians
  • Most common sentence in entries about women: she married

ODNB has well marked up SGML files .. does analysis of big data risk making digital history technocratic and hard to access? (per Hitchcock/Shoemaker)


  • most born and die in England. More places they die than are born
  • overrepresentation of C17 figures relative to the general population
  • year most subjects are alive is 1925
  • 1558 most common C16 year that ONDB people die .. Elizabeth takes the throne from Mary .. protestant martyrs
  • 1908 most ODNB deaths overall .. question of demography .. doesn't track death rate in the general population
  • mid-point of words 1785
  • politics, lit, journalism, publishing the most entries
  • sports, technology the fewest
  • royals and aristocracy have the longest biographies
  • medicine and music the shortest biographies
  • some obvious correlations between lives and whether biography about places or people, but some interesting: military place heavy, for example.
  • theatre history, engravers, magnates incredibly social biographies; pilots, philosophers much less so
  • parents often church of england clergy
  • Most common sentence in entries about women: 'she never married', 'they had no children', 'she was unmarried' .. in part a function of biography
  • marriage and children an obsession of biography
  • most commonly cited things are dictionaries, lists,
  • Grayson Ditchfield one of the most cited article authors! {he was my PhD supervisor}
  • religion becomes less important in the entires over time {I wonder - however - if that is still over-represented}
  • we can see C19 rise of catholicism in the data


Interest in historiography, identities, and networks.

ODNB both does and does not represent the past. We need to know what it misses/overemphasises in order to do good scholarly work.


Are some of these job categories too specific? (does help?)

Can we use this to say something about scholarship and the history that scholarship is about at the same time? Is your work about history or about the ODNB (a text published since 2004)?

Some admin...

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