I am seeking a core list of biographies . My purpose is to identify famous people whose biographies should be in most public libraries. I wonder if anyone has ever prescribed such a list by famous name, not by book title. I have not found such a list yet, but I have found The Biography Book by Daniel S. Burt.
The Biography Book's content is very impressive. For each of the 509 historical figures, all deceased, Burt provides a one paragraph profile, notes autobiographical and primary sources, and identifies recommended biographies (usually two or three), other biographies (often not as comprehensive as the recommended titles), biographical novels, fictional portraits, juvenile biographies, and films and plays portraying the figures. In his introduction, the author says that he chose the figures by searching through the catalogs of the public and academic libraries of Connecticut. The historical figures that made his book had at least thirty books about "their lives, work, or achievement" in these libraries. He included only biographical titles in this reference book. Books of literary criticism, histories of political administrations, and illustrated art books were excluded.
I think the resulting list must reflect the academic collections in Connecticut more than the public collections, as there are numerous figures I do not consider necessary for small public libraries. Names that surprised me included Aubrey Beardsley (English illustrator and writer), Coco Chanel (20th century fashion designer), Thomas de Quincey (19th century English essayist), Michel de Montaigne (16th century French essayist), and Ivan Turgenev (19th century Russian novelist). The list includes many writers, artists, classical musicians, and English monarchs.
I was surprised also by some names that are not included. Presidents James Polk and James Buchanan, the explorer Meriwether Lewis, sports figures Babe Ruth and Jim Thorpe, actors Mary Pickford and John Wayne, and musician Louis Armstrong. I expect students and general readers to ask for biographies of these famous people.
To be fair, most essential names that I checked are in this reference book. It can be used to study library collections, but librarians will have to use their good judgement whether biographies should be acquired. Readers' advisory librarians also could use Burt's book to create some interesting booklists matching biographies with novels.
The book has title, nationality, occupation, time period, and subject indexes. It should be in academic and large public libraries.
Burt, Daniel S. The Biography Book: A Reader's Guide to Nonfiction, Fictional, and Film Biographies of More Than 500 of the Most Fascinating Individuals of All Time. Westport, Connecticut: Oryx Press, 2001. ISBN 1573562564