Who's Who Directories and Biographical Works


Better Business Bureaus often receive inquiries regarding direct mail solicitations that offer to include the recipient in a biographical directory. Many of these directories have prestigious-sounding titles or expensive bindings often patterned after "Who's Who" type publications. The solicitations may be accompanied by a request for a "membership" fee or for an order of one or more copies of the directory. Some publishers charge nothing for a listing, but require purchase of the book by those listed, for a substantial amount. In most cases, the company doesn’t turn down any nominee or entry. Families of a recently deceased person may also be contacted for information or photographs of the deceased for inclusion in a biographical sketch.

The number of these publications covering various professions and geographic areas is ever increasing. Included among these are publications of doubtful value, usually highly complimentary of the individuals listed. Many of these publications are short-lived. From time to time, biographical publications have been issued by firms whose names imply connection with well-known historical societies or projects. Investigation has shown that in many cases, no connection exists.

Many of these directories claim that inclusion in their publication is a form of networking that will help you land business opportunities and gain important contacts. Before entering into a publication, it is a good idea to ask the company for specific names of companies and individuals who use these books for reference. Follow up by contacting the people that they claim use their publication to see if they actually do use it.

In promotional literature for these directories, a pre-assigned Library of Congress catalog card number may be prominently mentioned. Consumers should be aware that this number does not convey an endorsement by the Library of Congress. It merely indicates that the publisher has applied to the Library of Congress to catalog the book in its system. The Library of Congress contains many books and works of varying qualities.

For more information, write to, Library of Congress, 101 Independence Ave., S.E., Washington, D.C., 20540. Call (202) 707-5000 or visit www.loc.gov.

Contact Your Local Reference Librarian
Several publications commonly available in local libraries offer a selective listing of biographical works that have been reviewed by librarians for their reference value. These review publications, e.g., The Guide to Reference Books, Volume I, by William Katz; Fundamental Reference Sources by Cheney and Williams; and Reference Books for Small and Medium-Sized Public Libraries may also include descriptive comments on the contents of a biographical work. Contact your local reference librarian for additional information or call the American Library Association, Reference Books Bulletin Office, 50 East Huron Street, Chicago, IL 60611 at 312-944-6780. You may also visit their web site at www.ala.org.

Guidelines for Determining Validity
If you are solicited for inclusion in a biographical work, be realistic about your own accomplishments. Determine if the appeal is based strictly on personal vanity.

The following guidelines may be useful in determining the validity of a biographical reference.

  1. What selection process is used in choosing an individual for a biographical work? Did a friend or relative submit your name? Did an organization or association to which you belong submit a membership list to a publisher? Did the publisher comb other existing directories in which you appear?

  2. Do individuals selected for inclusion write their own biographical sketches?

  3. Will the publisher include a person's sketch if the individual declines purchase of the biographical work? Some companies offer their directories free of charge while others charge as much as $1,000 for each copy.

  4. Does the biographical work contain "evenness of entry"? For example, are well known individuals omitted or given equal coverage with lesser known inclusions?

    One reference specialist at the Library of Congress suggests thinking of two or three individuals who should be included by the nature of their accomplishments in the area covered by a particular work. Are these individuals ignored while lesser knowns are noted? If so, the validity of the reference work may be in question. Be careful of offers for first editions. There is no assurance of its quality or that it will ever be published.

  5. Is the publisher a well-known producer of these works? Most libraries will only purchase well-known and useful biographical dictionaries.