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Research Guides

Eastern Washington University Libraries


A guide to high quality American history focused resources for EWU students majoring in history. For other time periods, see the Class Guides on the left hand column of the Articles page.

What is a Biography?

What is a biography?

A biography is an account of a person's life. It may be a brief entry in a larger work or could be a detailed multi-volume work including all aspects of an individual's life, accomplishments and historical significance. Biographical sources may include both living and dead persons, individuals from a particular geographic area, or notable persons in a specific field. To begin your search, any of the following points are useful to know:

  • How much information do you need?
  • Is your subject living or dead? Many major biographical works cover only those no longer living.
  • Person's full name and correct spelling.
  • Dates of birth and death, when applicable.
  • Occupation or profession.
  • Nationality.

Preliminary Guidelines

This guide serves as an introduction, but it does not include all the titles in the JFK Reference collection. If you do not find something that suits your particular needs, consult a Reference librarian. If you just need basic facts about an individual, the biographical reference books and databases may be all you need.

It is important to keep in mind that biographical information may not be available for all individuals. If you are looking for information on an author, you may only find what is available in the book itself, or from the publisher's website.


General Biographies in Print

  • Biography & Geneology Master Index  Ref Desk CT210 B57.
  • Biography Index CT104 B52 -- Primarily covers American subjects and indexes both periodical articles and books from 1946 to 1994. In addition to the alphabetical listings of individuals, each volume includes an index to occupations.
  • Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia CT 103 C26 -- Contains over 15,000 short biographies, both historical and contemporary. An updated web version with over 25,000 biographies is available through A&E television at
  • Current Biography Ref CT100 C8 -- Biographies of notables in the arts, sports, national and world affairs and the sciences. Entries are two to three pages, based on interviews as well as published sources.
  • Encyclopedia of World Biography Ref CT103 E56 (19 vols.) -- Brief biographical sketches provide vital statistics as well as achievements of the person listed.
  • New York Times Obituary Index Ref CT213 N47 (2 vols.) -- v. 1. 1858-1968 -- v. 2. 1969-1978.
  • Personal Name Index to "The New York Times Index" Ref CT104 F32 (22 vols. plus 11 supplemental vols.) -- Covers any mention of a name from 1851 to 2003.

United States

  • American National Biography (ANB) Ref CT213 A68 (24 vols. plus supplements) -- Fundamental source of historical American biography. It offers portraits of more than 17,400 men and women whose lives have shaped the nation. All figures included in the ANB died before 1996. Supplements include individuals who died through 2004.
  • Dictionary of American Biography (DAB) Ref E176 D56 -- Includes only Americans who have died. The original 20 vols. were issued 1928-36; ten supplements go up through 1980. Lengthy pieces on individuals who have made a significant contribution to American society across fields including politics, literature, the arts, and business.
  • Who Was Who in America Ref E176 W64 -- One of the most comprehensive biographical sources of people who made a contribution to American history and have died. (Also available online in Marquis Who's Who.)
  • Who's Who in the West Ref F595 W64 -- A biographical dictionary of noteworthy men and women of the western states. Latest ed. in JFK Ref., previous eds. in Special Collections. (Also available online in Marquis Who's Who.)

Great Britain

  • Who's Who Ref DA28 W6 (1912-current) -- Covers Great Britain and the Commonwealth. 



  • Black Women in America Ref E185.86 .B542 (3 vols.) -- Includes biographical essays on individual black women, both historical and contemporary, as well articles on related topics, e.g. affirmative action, the black arts movements, etc.
  • Notable American Women Ref CT3260 N57 -- Published by Harvard University Press, this set includes lengthy pieces on women of distinction.
  • Notable Black American Women Ref E185.96 N68 -- Lengthy entries on women of distinction. Each volume is on a particular field, e.g. education, science, or music. Each volume includes an index to all volumes.
  • Who's Who of American Women Ref E176 W647 -- Brief entries which include dates, education, work history and other significant accomplishments. (Also available online in Marquis Who's Who.)

Ethnic Biographies

  • African American Encyclopedia Ref E185 A53 (10 vols.) -- Includes articles on individuals as wells as by subject.
  • African American Experience -- Offers full text information from over 300 scholarly books and encyclopedias, as well as thousands of primary source documents.
    Scholarly books and encyclopedias, as well as hundreds of primary source documents and photographs for the histories and cultures of the Native American peoples.
  • Asian American Encyclopedia Ref E184 O6 A827 (6 vols.) -- Includes articles on individuals as well as by subject.
  • Biographical Dictionary of American Indian History to 1900 Ref E89 W35 -- Covers over 1000 Indians and non-Indians who had a significant impact on United States history prior to 1900.
  • Encyclopedia of Native American Biography: Six Hundred Life Stories of Important People from Powhatan to Wilma Mankiller Ref E89 J69 --This one volume encyclopedia covers all time periods and tribal affiliations.
  • Facts on File Encyclopedia of Black Women in America Ref E185.96 F2 (11 vols.) -- Arranged by profession, e.g. literature, the arts, education, religion, etc.
  • Latino American Experience -- Offers full text information from over 150 scholarly books and encyclopedias, over 1500 images, as well as hundreds of primary source documents.
  • Native American Women Ref E98 W8 B38 -- Entries for historical and contemporary American Indian women, with indexes by tribal affiliation, place of birth, time period, and area of significance.


  • Dictionary of Literary Biography's American Historians, 1607-1865, American Historians, 1866-1912 & Twentieth Century American Historians -- Entries from these three volumes from The Dictionary of Literary Biography offer lengthy portraits of each historian's life and work including a selected bibliography. Includes only prominent historians whose work created a lasting impact. (Also available in print: Ref PN451 D54 v. 30, Ref PN451 D54 v. 47, & Ref PN451 D54 v. 17, respectively.)
  • American Women Historians, 1700-1990s Ref E175.45 S27 -- Brief portraits of two hundred women historians in the United States. Entries are one to two pages long and include a selective bibliography.
  • Dictionary of World Biography  Ref CT104 .D54 1998 (10 vols.).