A Great Tool for Booksellers: <i>The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography</i>
by Renee Magriel Roberts
Writing really great book descriptions is the key to better bookselling, which I define as providing excellent service and accurate information for customers, combined with being able to ask fair prices for the material we sell. A good description goes beyond the physical and edition definition. I like being able to accurately discuss the author, the book's importance and place in the author's oeuvre, and the environment in which the work was created. It is not always easy getting information that is reliable and getting it efficiently, so I was ecstatic to find a tool that will help me do the job better and faster.
Early on I purchased a physical set of the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) for this purpose. Something of a British institution, my nineteenth-century set offers detailed biographies of British notables, along with detailed bibliographies. Since we have a number of antiquarian biographies in our stock, these reference works are invaluable, as they present a contemporary look at authors and their works, as well as the biographical subjects. However, I have recently set my books aside in favor of the electronic version available by subscription from Oxford University Press (www.oup.com).
This new online reference tool, available for around $300/year, covers some 55,800 lives and 10,300 portrait illustrations. It includes the complete text of the original DNB, which being in the public domain can be used without restraint in any listings I create. Not confined to the 19th century, this new DNB goes right up to the present and is continuously updated, so it works for modern British authors as well.
Unlike my books, this new tool is electronic, so I can readily cut and paste information, saving valuable time when I'm composing book descriptions. It includes reference material (such as a list of kings and queens, Nobel prize winners, and so forth). I can search not only by name, but also do full text searches on all the biographies that contain any word or group of words.
So, for example, if I would like to know more about the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge which is sponsoring one of my books, I will immediately discover the names of many of the notables and authors involved in that Society, including Henry Lord Brougham, Charles Knight, Sir Charles Bell, George Birkbeck, and pages of others.
I can search not only under the full name, but also search pseudonyms, nicknames, aristocratic titles, performing names, initials, incomplete names, and name changes. This is particularly handy if I do not know to whom a pseudonym belongs -- a quick check can reveal the real author (and perhaps save me from selling a valuable book for too little).