The Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of Reference Works: OED Going Online Only?

This story came to my attention a number of weeks ago, but I thought it was interesting enough to give it a mention – better late than never.

The publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary have announced that they expect the next edition of the OED will not be published in print. The upcoming 3rd edition is expected to consist of 800,000 words and fill a whopping 40 volumes, with an estimated publication date of 2034, a full 20 years behind schedule. In an April 20 article in The Telegraph online, OED editor Michael Proffitt explains that the next edition is taking much longer than expected because the time it takes to research a word’s usage has increased significantly due to the proliferation of information online.

Compared to the 2nd edition, published in 1989, which weighs in at 20 volumes and is currently on sale on the OED website for $995, the upcoming (at some point, anyway) 40-volume 3rd edition would very likely be cost prohibitive for libraries, the primary purchasers of the OED. And that’s to say nothing about the serious amount of shelf space this monster would occupy in print. It makes perfect sense to forgo publishing in print, especially since they’re not expecting a finished product for another 20 years. Even now, large-scale reference works like the Encyclopedia Britannica have already gone to online-only publishing; the last print edition of Britannica came out in 2010. On top of this, libraries are also increasingly shifting their collection budgets away from purchasing print reference materials, which are significantly increasing in price while at the same time decreasing in patron usage. We can expect this trend to continue into the future and by 2034, the publishing landscape and the print versus online publishing balance may look much different even from what we see today.

The Oxford English Dictionary is a venerated publication, which is much loved by librarians, linguists, philologists, and all other sorts of word nerds alike. As a reference librarian, I always relished the opportunity to go to the OED to answer a question in the course of my regular work. And I won’t lie, I have sat down and just paged through a volume or two in my spare time for my own amusement. There is much to be said for the cultural value of print books, but in the case of the OED, the resource itself is of such great value as a cultural record of the English language, that I am happy it will continue to exist and grow at all, even if we will no longer be able to hold it in hand. And at 40 volumes, I’m not so sure I’d want to.

So for now, there’s always the current 2nd edition of the OED, likely available on a library shelf near you, and if not, definitely available here at the ND State Library. There’s also a subscription-based version of the OED online, which incorporates new words for the 3rd edition as the entries are established. If your local library does not subscribe, and you’re in the market for some freely available word-nerdery, you can sign up to receive OED’s “Word of the Day” by email.

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