Tuesday 23 May 2017 – Christopher N. Warren – What do we know about the ODNB? Elite Lives at Scale

Venue: John S Cohen Room, 203

Senate House
Malet Street
London WC1E 7HU

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Christopher N. Warren (Carnegie Mellon University)

On its release in 2004, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography was called ‘the greatest book ever,’ ‘a more enthralling read than all the novels ever entered for the Booker Prize put together.’   The Daily Mail, where these giddy pronouncements appeared, is not known for understatement, but more cautious academic researchers have long held the ODNB in similarly high esteem—even though the enormous scope of ODNB, which is the work of roughly 10,000 scholars, runs to 60 volumes in print, and is made up of more than 62 million words, quickly defeats the capacities of those most eager to praise it. Stefan Collini, writing in the London Review of Books, found himself ‘experiencing a rare, and wholly unironic, feeling that mixes pride and humility with a dash of wonder’ when he considered ‘generations to come making use of this vast consolidation of scholarly accuracy for purposes of their own which may be barely imaginable to us now.’  This talk will argue, first, that the ODNB offers fresh perspective on the broadest changes in elite British culture, and second, that such perspective is uniquely—perhaps even exclusively—available by way of computational methods.

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