On-line data for free

by Dr Eric Webb

Branch members may be interested to learn that membership of Milton Keynes Public Library, which is of course itself free, brings with it free online access, from any computer and not just the Library terminals, to The Dictionary of National Biography, The Times archive 1785–1985 and several other potentially valuable information sources.

If you are already a Library member, your code number, on your card underneath the bar-code, is all you need.

If not, joining up is easy. Go to any MK library branch taking with you confirmation of your identity and signature, such as your driving licence or a bank or credit card in your name, and recent confirmation of your address, such as a bank statement or a utilities bill not more than 3 months old. You do not need photo ID.

For branch addresses and opening times see http://www.milton-keynes.gov.uk/library_services/.

To access the DNB, point your browser at: http://www.oxforddnb.com/, select ‘Subscribers Enter Here’, enter your code number in ‘Library Card Login’ and away you go!

The Times is potentially a bit more complicated. The Internet ‘front door’ is no good, you won’t get in. You have to go via the MK Library site at http://www.milton-keynes.gov.uk/library_services/ and the ‘Online Services’ link. It’s worth doing this once or twice to find out what else is available but it’s fiddly and it takes several steps before you get to enter your code number. If you know you want The Times and nothing else it makes more sense to go straight to: http://infotrac.galegroup.com/itweb/milton?db=TTDA. That takes a bit of typing in, so save it as a favourite.

My experience of these sites thus far is mixed. Historically, the DNB shows a strong literary, establishment and generally ‘genteel’ bias. There are entries aplenty for minor poets, and for obscure public servants of every stripe. Military figures much below the rank of Army Commander are seldom to be found unless they achieved special fame, or notoriety. It is probably at its best as a source of ready reference to dates and other background for key figures whose names and careers are already at least half–familiar.

The Times archive is spectacular, both for people and for background, when it is working. Occasionally it isn’t, but after a few successful sessions I’m hooked!

It is possible to specify a relevant date range and to search for keywords, such as names, or to browse editions. The letters columns are particularly illuminating, and sometimes hilarious. The wartime casualty lists tell their own story. What did The Times have to say about the Gallipoli landings or the Battle of the Somme as they happened, before contemporary records and impressions were digested down into history? What else was happening meanwhile?

It can take a bit of finding, but it’s all there!