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Electronic Resources that Help Illuminate Past Lives

Posted on 04/01/2010

Increasingly, a writer attempting to produce the definitive biography of a 19th or 20th-century American will find that essential tools include searchable databases of government documents and newspapers. T.J. Stiles, author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (2009, Alfred A. Knopf), which recently won the National Book Award, was able to utilize the digital edition of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set to uncover vindicating facts about the patriotism of his often maligned subject. In his article “Commodore Vanderbilt: Patriot or War Profiteer?,” Stiles writes:

I was ready to indict and convict Vanderbilt of war profiteering, if that’s where the evidence led me. Instead, it convinced me that the Commodore deserved his gold medal. Vanderbilt has often been treated with cynicism by historians, who are ready to believe the worst of a staggeringly rich, secretive, and combative man. Certainly I did not set out to rehabilitate his reputation. But I couldn’t ignore the evidence—evidence provided in breathtaking abundance by Congress in its Serial Set, now more accessible than ever thanks to digitization.

Vanda Krefft, a 2009–2010 Biography Fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the City University of New York, is writing a biography of early movie mogul William Fox that will be published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. In “Searching for the Forgotten Movie Mogul: William Fox, Founder of Twentieth Century Fox,” Kreftt describes the challenges of writing the first biography of Fox:

When I began work several years ago...I knew I was in for trouble. Although Fox was arguably the most important of all the early movie moguls because of his foundational contributions to the art, technology and business of movies, he seemed to have largely disappeared from history. ... ...electronic research tools have made this project not only feasible but also endlessly interesting. Especially valuable—make that absolutely essential—have been newspaper databases such as America’s Historical Newspapers, which allow one to see directly how communities nationwide, both small and large, responded to the cultural lightning bolt of motion pictures. ...Data from America’s Historical Newspapers helped me solve one of my big challenges, which was to figure out how exactly William Fox became so successful so quickly as a movie producer.

Biographer James McGrath Morris, author of Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power (HarperCollins Publishers, 2010), is also the editor of the free monthly e-newsletter Biographer’s Craft. Aware of the mounting needs of biographers, new scholarly journals dedicated to biography, and the rising popularity of panel discussions about biography at events hosted by the Organization of American Historians and other associations, Morris created the Biographers International Organization (BIO) in 2009. This year, on May 15, 2010, BIO will hold the first Compleat Biographer Conference at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. With a focus on the practical aspects of the craft and art of biography, Morris and his colleagues will provide collegial setting in which biographers can meet and share experiences with other biographers. The daylong meeting will bring together biographers from the United States and other countries for a series of workshops and panel discussions. In recognition of the growing importance of historical databases for biographical research, one of the sessions is “New Frontiers in Electronic Research: An Overview of the New Resources Now Available from Government Documents to Newspapers, Photographs, and Films.” If you will be attending the ALA conference this summer, you may wish to join Readex for breakfast on Sunday, June 27 to hear James McGrath Morris present “A Light on Past Lives: The Illuminating Effects of Electronic Resources on Biographical Research.” If you would like to attend or have any questions, please email Readex's Erin Luckett at by June 18, 2010. 

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