The Online Books Page

Frequently Asked Questions

How Can I Tell When an Author Died?

In many countries, books enter the public domain at a specific interval after the death of the authors. Unfortunately, it's often not easy to find out when authors died, and thus determine if a particular book is in the public domain in your country.

The Online Books Page now has death years for many of the authors in its database, and is continuing to add them as we add new records and update old ones. To see the author death dates associated with one of our listings, as well as other information about a listed book, select the Info icon next to the listing.

If there are authors listed without death dates, you may need to find the death dates yourself. Fortunately, there are a number of places you can look for this information, both online and offline. (If you do find reliable information on the death year of an author that we don't currently list with death dates, please let us know, so we can add this information to our own listings.)

Authority files and name databases

Many national libraries keep track of the death dates of authors they catalog through their authority files. In some cases, these files are publicly searchable. For example, the Library of Congress Authorities allows you to search for "Name Authority Headings" which often contain a death date. If you find an author's name in an authorized heading, but there's no death date listed in the heading, select the "Authorized Heading" or "Authorized" icon; sometimes the full record gives a death date even if the heading does not. When death dates are in an authorized heading, they can often be discovered simply by doing a library catalog search on that person.

Some independent databases that collect author death date information include the New General Catalog of Old Books and Authors (in the UK), and the WATCH database (at Texas).

For European authors, the CERL Thesaurus is a useful source of information on names from the hand-press era (1450- ca. 1830), drawn from the authority files of numerous European countries.

If you understand a bit of German, the German National Library also has a searchable website for names: Deutsche Nationalbibliografie. Additional resources of particular interest to German speakers can be found in this Archivalia post (in German) by Klaus Graf.

WorldCat Identities may be helpful as well. It draws from various sources, including authority files and bibliographic data. (Among other things, it can be used to tell when an author's works were published, which in some cases may be early enough that you can safely assume the author died long enough ago to be out of copyright.)

You may also want to consider checking Wikipedia, which has a wide variety of articles on individuals, possibly including the person you're interested in. (And there are even more names covered in web pages indexed by Google and other search engines.) To judge the reliability of the death year information on a given article or page, look for citations for the death year claimed, and see if they're from sources you trust.

Biographies and bibliographies

Try doing a subject search on your author in your library, or a large union catalog like WorldCat. If you find any matching resources, it's likely that they will include information about when the author died, if the author was dead when the resource was created.

Biographical dictionaries and other specialized resources

There are a number of online and offline resources giving biographical information, including death dates, for millions of individuals. Many of these resources are not freely available online, but are available through local libraries. Ask your librarian for recommendations. In many cases, there are specialized resources with information about people from different places, with different occupations, or of different religions, so if you can tell the librarian about the person you're interested in, they may be able to direct you to a specialized source with information about the person.

Thanks to Klaus Graf for suggesting many of the resources above.


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Copyright 1993-2007 by John Mark Ockerbloom (onlinebooks@pobox.upenn.edu)