Dictionary of Irish Biography now open-access

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2021), News, Volume 29


By Terry Clavin

In March 2021, the Dictionary of Irish Biography (DIB) moved to an ‘open-access’ model, making its entire corpus of nearly 11,000 biographical entries freely available to all users through a new website at www.dib.ie. The DIB marked its move to open access by publishing a number of high-profile new entries online, including biographies of Garret FitzGerald and Ian Paisley by Patrick Maume.

The DIB is now a fully accessible national—and, indeed, international—resource that the general public can enjoy alongside students of history at all levels. This more dynamic online presence will also allow the project team to present themed collections of biographical entries and to publish essays that draw on lives included in the DIB.

DIB entries are more than mere catalogues of events but attempt to appraise the circumstances shaping an individual’s life. The main editorial criteria are that each entry be factually accurate, based on the most recently available sources and accessible to the general reader. Otherwise, contributors are encouraged to interpret a life in any way they find to be apposite and true. Most entries are researched and written by the in-house team; some are done by expert external contributors.

Biographical subjects eligible for inclusion in the DIB must be dead (usually for at least five years) and must either have been born on the island of Ireland or have had a significant career here. The biographies range in length from 200 to 15,000 words, depending mainly on the importance of the subject. As far as possible, DIB entries contain comprehensive factual information: details of birth and death, family, education, significant awards, distinctions and promotions. The sources are included at the end of each entry.

To support the principle of open access and collaboration in digital humanities, DIB entries can now be shared or used in line with Creative Commons ‘Attribution’ (CC BY 4.0) licensing. In practice this means that DIB entries can be copied or adapted and redistributed in any medium or format. The DIB simply asks that credit be given to the author of the entry and to the DIB itself, that a link be provided to the CC BY licence and that any changes to the material be noted.

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 hard-copy volumes and also online through a platform provided by its publisher, Cambridge University Press, which was available to institutions (e.g. universities, schools, libraries) to purchase. Subsequently the DIB published online updates to that platform every six months, as well as two further hard-copy volumes in 2018. Most of the online updates were comprised of batches of roughly 40 subjects who had died in recent years. Inevitably, some interesting and important figures were overlooked in the original DIB, so every two years the online update has a ‘missing persons’ batch comprising 60–80 new biographies.

Above: The DIB marked its move to open access by publishing a number of high-profile new entries online, including biographies of Garret FitzGerald and Ian Paisley by Patrick Maume.

There has been a tendency over time 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 rendered the project less reliant on secondary sources and heightened expectations of what the DIB can deliver. 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 been covering more esoteric areas. 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% 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 in part to the ongoing growth in scholarship on women’s history.

In advance of the open-access launch, the DIB team reached out to 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 to identify any factual inaccuracies or omissions of significant information. In future, the DIB will record and make public all revisions to its entries.

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 and Archives (DCLA). DCLA is also contributing to the ongoing costs of running the website through a ‘subscribe to open’ sponsorship.


Terry Clavin is an editorial assistant with the Dictionary of Irish Biography.


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