On March 17th, the most comprehensive and authoritative biographical dictionary yet published for Ireland, the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography (DIB), is moving to an open access model, making its entire corpus of nearly 11,000 biographies, spanning over 1,500 years of Irish history, freely available to all through a new website at dib.ie.
So who gets into the DIB? First and foremost, subjects eligible for inclusion must be dead (usually for at least five years) and must either be born on the island of Ireland or have had a significant career there. Exiles (like James Joyce) are included as are blow-ins (like St Patrick), but not second- or more-generation emigrants of Irish extraction (like John F Kennedy), unless they resettle in the old country.
In terms of the sort of person who features, the “great and the good” get their due, but they keep strange company, jostling for the reader’s attention alongside entertainers, eccentrics, martyrs (religious or otherwise), desperados and impoverished geniuses. DIB readers can navigate this sprawling canvas using the website’s simple and accessible user interface, with options to browse by entry or contributor, or to search by keyword (such as the name of a town or village) or using a more granular faceted search.
Ranging in length from 200 to 15,000 words, DIB biographies are more than mere catalogues of events – in the dismissive words of Samuel Johnson, a “formal and studied narrative … begun with his pedigree and ended with his funeral” – but attempt to give a sense of a subject’s personality and to analyse and contextualise their life. Suitably illuminating anecdotes are also included. The main editorial criteria are that each entry be factually accurate, based on the most recently available sources and accessible to the general reader.
Upon its launch in 2009, the DIB dealt with subjects from the earliest times to those who died up to the end of 2002. It was published in nine hardcopy volumes and also online through a platform provided by its publishers Cambridge University Press, which was available to institutions to purchase. Subsequently the DIB published online updates to that platform every six months, as well as two further hardcopy volumes in 2018. Most of the online updates were comprised of batches of roughly 40 subjects who had died since 2002. Inevitably, some interesting and important figures were overlooked in the original DIB, so every two years the online update was a “missing persons” batch comprising 60 to 80 new biographies.
There has been a tendency for DIB biographies to become more detailed and ambitious in scope. This is mainly in response to the widespread digitisation of primary source material over the past decade, which has heightened expectations of what the DIB can deliver. In particular, the ability to perform word searches on the digital archives of nearly all the national and many of the local newspapers has turned the Irish print media into an invaluable repository of research material. Journalism’s role in providing the first draft of history has never been more apparent! We are, of course, conscious of the need to avoid writing history though a journalistic prism.
Occupational spheres already well represented within the DIB – such as politics, law, government administration, sport and academia – will continue to feature, but the project has begun covering less conventional ground too. The most recent “missing persons” batch includes the owner of Dublin’s most loved fish and chip shop, a woman who almost assassinated Mussolini, a scalp-hunter and a famed pickpocket. Women comprised only 10 per cent of all subjects in the original DIB, which reflected the lack of opportunity for women in Irish society until very recently. This proportion has more than doubled among the DIB’s post-2009 publications and will continue to rise, thanks also to the ongoing growth in scholarship on women’s history.
The move to open access was always a long-term goal and has now been made a reality thanks principally to the initiative and drive of DIB managing editor Kate O’Malley. It had to be pushed through on a tight budget after the Covid-19 crisis led to the loss of potential funding. As the outsourcing of the website’s development was not financially possible, a heavy burden was capably shouldered by the Royal Irish Academy’s small in-house IT department. The Covid-driven closure of the public libraries and archives forced a pause in the DIB’s publishing schedule, which allowed staff to pivot from writing and editing entries to assisting with delivering the open access project.
In advance of the open access launch, the DIB team contacted as many of its 700-plus contributors as possible to invite updates to their entries. Furthermore, we anticipate that the feedback arising from the ready availability of the DIB will help us in identifying any factual inaccuracies or omissions of significant information. From 2021 onward, details of all significant revisions to the DIB corpus will be provided, with links available to previous iterations. There will also be a blog section featuring themed essays that bring together biographical entries from the DIB corpus.
The DIB is marking the launch of its new open access website by publishing four high-profile new entries online, including biographies of Garret FitzGerald and Ian Paisley by DIB scholar Dr Patrick Maume. In line with Creative Commons attribution (CC BY 4.0) licencing, these and all other DIB entries can now be copied or adapted and redistributed in any medium or format. The DIB simply asks that credit is given to the author of the entry and to the DIB itself, that a link is provided to the CC BY licence, and that any changes to the material are noted.
The DIB project is managed by the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) with funding from the Higher Education Authority. The new DIB open access website was built by the RIA with funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Dublin City Libraries (the latter are also contributing to the ongoing costs of running the website through a ‘subscribe to open’ sponsorship).
Visit the open access DIB at dib.ie.
Terry Clavin is a DIB researcher