(WBIS) World Biographical Information System – Guide
October 2007; revised May 2008
We turn our attention to another German-born biographical database known as the World Bibliographical Information Systems, also called WBIS.
WBIS bills itself as “the most comprehensive biographical database available“. Here are some of the reasons:
- Number of biographies: This collection comprises data on about 4.6 million people, and biographical articles on about 3.8 million. It aims to continue adding archives and to be able, by 2009, to have 10 million biographical articles on over 5 million people.
- WBIS is multidisciplinary - it has artists but it has scientists, politicians, and aritsocracy. For art historians, here is a place to look for all the supporting cast of characters such as art dealers, collectors, persons involved in aspects of provenance, portrait sitters, and patrons.
- It covers language and cultural areas from all over the world.
- It includes biographical material written from the 16th century to the present about people who lived from the 8th century BC to the present.
Archives. WBIS is based on a series of “Biographical Archives” published by K. G. Saur Verlag; each archive covers a different language and cultural area. You can get an idea of the breadth of the archives here: WBIS Archives.
Typically, 200-300 biographical reference sources were filmed for each archive set in the series. The sources include biographical lexicons, history books, encyclopedia, Who’s Who, almanacs, etc. – many specialized further by place, occupation or theme. The individual entries from all of the sources were then reassembled in a single alphabet on microfiche. Thus, the entries for the sixteenth-century German theologian, Simon Pauli (1534-1591), reproduced from seven different biographical encyclopedias, are filed together under his name.
What Does MMA have access to? Watson Library’s subscription to WBIS gives us access to all the citations in all the archives; it is in a sense, a gigantic index. In addition, the Library subscribes to Part I of the 3-part French Archive so we will get the full text biographical article(s) of any person in that archive. (The archives are relatively expensive and there are over 30 of them.)
Part I of the French Archive includes 181 sources, 472 volumes, and 232,000 articles. You will notice the variety of biographical reference sources. Each biographical article in the archive is full-text though not searchable on the article text.
Let’s do an example using the basic search in WBIS. Take a moment to notice the screen:
- The Help feature is clear and concise, don’t hesitate to use it
- Preferences controls the number of results shown and the language of the interface labels
- Previous Searches are held for the length of the session
- Logout Since our subscription is for one user at a time, please remember to logoff when finished.
- There are four kinds of searches available as shown in the blue bar at the top of the screen.
- At the bottom of the screen is a link that shows what archives are included in the subscription.
Note: Always use the navigation provided on the screen, not the browser buttons.
The name search in WBIS is straightforward and it acts as a “name contains” with and understood for multiple words. Alternate forms of a person’s name, if included in the record, are automatically searched.
Let’s search for Anne de Bretagne; Anne was an early French Queen and a patron of art. Our search produces two results and we want the one that identifies her as reine or queen; the little open book icon indicates that there is full text in the French archive.
Notice that Occupation is in the language of the archive, but Occupational classification is standardized (in English, German or one of several languages in the preferences) across all archives.
The Fiche location tells you the number of the fiche and frame(s) where the results of the search are found. In this example it tells us that Part I of the French Archive (which is the part we have full text by subscription) has 80 frames (320-387 and 185-196) or pages of full text.
One of the drawbacks of WBIS is that you have no idea how many sources those 80 pages cover. For instance, in the case of Anne de Bretagne - there are fifteen sources in the French Archive but you don’t know which of the those is in Archive I or in Archive II or III – you have to look.
Looking at the results of a search on Anne de Bretagne illustrates one of the strengths of this reference source, namely, that many of the biographies were written closer in time to the person’s life and reflect more contemporary views. For instance Anne de Bretagne gets one highly distilled page in the Encyclopedia Britannica but in WBIS there are about 80 pages on microfiche, from different sources, and some as early as 1647 (she died in 1514.)
Let’s look at the full text by clicking the link at the top of the search result for the archive. You can page through the full text articles. At the end of each article the citation is included. Tip: A quick way to view archive articles is to download them to a PDF.
A more typical example can be found by doing a basic search on Villard de Honnecourt. Notice that there are seven sources referenced for him and that three of them appear in full text. There are also references to this architect in the Hungarian Archive.
A permanent URL to results for a biography search can be saved. See this one for the Chinese artist Zhengming Wen, and notice the reference sources.
Printing and emailing. Let’s point out how to print here: you can check off an entry in the results list and email or print it (printing can be brief or full, emailing is always the full version).
To print the original source documents, the biographical articles, you have to download to a PDF and then print. If the number of source pages is large, it might be useful to simply turn the whole group into a PDF and read through it that way. You can also select what you want to print. From the PDF you can email the article(s) to yourself. There is also a way to save the URL of your search results
A difficulty with WBIS is that page numbers from the reference sources are not included – the large number you see at the bottom of an article is the fiche frame. For a short entry from a “dictionary” or “encyclopedia”, page number may not be important but it would be useful if you’re quoting from a ten or twenty page article.
The Biographical Search allows you to search for individuals by using specific personal characteristics. If you wanted to find biographies on the sculptor and artist David Smith (there are almost 200 David Smith’s) it would be better to choose the Biographical Search and fill in the fields for Name and Occupational Classification (use the index to find Plastic Arts under Art). Alternately you could use a birth or death date to limit the search.
The following is another use of the Biographical Search and finds eighteenth century miniaturists in the American and British Archives.
- Occupation: miniatur*
- Year All: 1700:1800
- Archive: American Archive or British Archive
This allows you to search among the reference works. For instance, if you want to see what reference works exist for Provence (because you’re researching someone who lived there) you can use “Provence” as a key word in the bibliographic search. (The search returns two sources which are full text with our current subscription). This is useful for various geographical locations including American states. You can also search to see if a specific reference work is included, e.g. Enciclopedia Biografica or reference works by the author Ribera.
Searching the microfiche is only useful if you already know where the information is. For example, the following search:
- Microfiche Number 0402
- Frame Number 415
will return the first biographical entry on Gustave Flaubert (in Part I of the French Archive). Paging through will continue with articles on Flaubert and then the next person alphabetically.