National Biography in a Transnational Age

AHA Session 11
Thursday, January 7, 2016: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Grand Ballroom B (Hilton Atlanta, Second Floor)
Wm. Roger Louis, University of Texas at Austin
The Audience

Session Abstract

Scholarly interest in global history and the movement of people, ideas, and goods between regions and nations – coupled with the growing importance of global and transnational histories that look beyond established national boundaries to study that exchange – is now an important feature of modern humanities scholarship.   National biographical dictionaries are uniquely positioned to play a critical role in these larger historiographical conversations, in large part because of the sheer breadth and scope of their contents.  The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, American National Biography, the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, and the Australian Dictionary of Biography together survey the lives of more than 100,000[1] people who shaped those nations and the wider world.  Deployed collectively and collaboratively, biographical dictionaries have the potential to generate a richer, more pluralistic understanding of individual countries’ historical global ‘reach’ as well as deepening and expanding our understanding of transnationalism within formal imperial structures and beyond.  Putting such biographical resources in dialogue with each other would both reflect and further stimulate current scholarly priorities by adding to our knowledge of the movement and interaction of people and ideas worldwide.

            The four panelists, each a distinguished general editor of an established national biographical dictionary, aim to begin such a discussion with this session.   David Cannadine explores how the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography functions not just as a biographical dictionary of British history but also serves as an important resource for global history.   Susan Ware examines how the field of American women’s history has increasingly embraced a global perspective, and the role that biographical dictionaries such as American National Biography can play in documenting patterns of women’s international activism.  Melanie Nolan uses the Dictionary of Australian Biography to raise issues of context and cultural identity in the Australasian transnational zone, exploring whether there are global natures in biography, even among proximate peoples such as the Antipodeans.   David Wilson explores the usefulness of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography for studying the history and influence of the Irish on English Canada, especially in the period from 1815-1870 when they were the largest ethnic group, and the importance of such a project for Diasporic studies.   Animating all four presentations is an exploration of the benefits and challenges of connecting national biographies into broader international networks to meet the needs of historical research in an increasingly global context.

[1] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) contains 59,453 entries; American National Biography (ANB), 19,044;  Dictionary of Canadian Biography, 8500; and Australian Dictionary of National Biography, 15,294, for a total of 102,291 biographical entries to date.

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