Victorian-era Dictionary of National Biography digitised on Wikisource

A portrait of George Murray Smith painted by John Collier
George Murray Smith, painted by John Collier

This post was written by Charles Matthews, Wikimedian and Wikimedia UK volunteer.

The digitisation project for the Victorian-era Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) on Wikisource has reached the milestone of a complete posting for the biographies for the first edition, which was published in 63 volumes from 1885 to 1900. Wikisource is the text repository of Wikimedia, less well known than Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons (media files), but which adds value to texts with author pages, portals and categories, and light  annotation and hyperlinks.

The efforts of over 30 people since 2008 have put close to 30,000 DNB articles onto Wikisource. While in the UK the text of the old DNB is available freely through library cards on, the subscription site of the modern revised Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), the old DNB is still of interest, and this digitisation makes it much easier to use for the whole world… For example the DNB contains more genealogical and bibliographical research information. This major resource has in fact not previously been available straightforwardly on search engines.

The DNB was a remarkable legacy project of the publisher George Murray Smith. Typical of the unstoppable Victorian attitude, it was authored by over 700 writers, with the first editor being Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf. It is particularly strong in areas such as naval biography and Scottish history. With a deep coverage of figures relevant to the British Empire as it then was, it was called by historian Christopher Hill “that much maligned and indispensable work”. Texts on Wikisource cannot be guaranteed perfect, but the small numbers in the left margin of the DNB biographies give access to scans of original pages allowing for checking and correction by anyone.