Future of Editing – Philip Carter of the ODNB

FutureToday’s Future of Editing talk was by Philip Carter from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Notes have not been edited.

10 years of the publication of the ODNB in September.

Wants to think about changing and curating text as part of editorial process.

Sections: New content; curating; new ways of using for scholarship & new directions.

Original was 54,922 people with 10,057 portrait likenesses, 9804 contributors.

Proximity of publishing and working helped publication. Work near each other.

After original work published, supplements added to keep it up to date until new edition in 1908. 1917 DNB moved from London to Oxford.

ODNB changed practice:

1 No one to be excluded. Once in, then in.

2 Extended the coverage, 16,315 first time entries reflecting C20 historical interests.

3 Online publication and print.

4 ‘That it be done’: published as work in progress.


3 Editorial decisions

1 The project would continue

2 biographical coverage would be extended: chronological progression from 2001 onwards and across all historical periods.

3 Content is up to date and maintained.


New Biographies and editing

Biographies are updated based on ranking but comparing like with like based on advice. Sometimes the work is better known than the person (Peter Denyer).

Suggestions are aggregated to create distinct sets.

Work with some external groups for new biographies.

Editing an article

In-house editing of the dictionary then subject experts. Editing provenance through the pen colours used until moved to email. Textual and lexicographical styles allowed but must conform to the style.

L Stephens added in humour in context. Example Peter Carter-Ruck’s number plate, L1BEL, mentioned in the article.

As editor, becomes facilitator for the new reader to the person. Some people have light and sureness of touch for editing.


1. collaborative with authors, readers and publisher.

2. interested in many things. Endless curiosity.

3. reading up and moving on from subject.

4. be prepared to have nothing to show for it. Sometimes information is not available.

5. the greater good and willingness to be backstage

6. knowing when to leave things be

7. sensitivity to content

8. thinking about the work in the round.


Change from factual to conceptual writing. Older articles tend to talk about physical. Public library access and regional lives need considering. Also the length of a biography. Unlike Wikipedia, ODNB article might summarise.

Can add in new resources

Census returns

Civil registration




Seen as Conserving and Curating a national collection as the evolution. Research into cremation allowed for an entry to be updated with further information from a different field. Change of thinking?

Using mapping and links to tempt people to look at reference publishing. Convert article into podcast, or work with external parties.

Want to continue promoting and cultivating research projects and extend the coverage. Using the 6 Degrees of Francis Bacon for analysis and also using the ODNB as a starting a scholarly journey to works and other sources.

Looking at better use of the non-headword people in the dictionary and replacing selected biographies. Linking to other biographies and search portal.

Scholarly reference as a quality item but also the second port of call, after Wikipedia. Not just ODNB but others?


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