Oxford English Dictionary and the Future of Print

We care about print here at Slaw, though we’re the home of pixel-lex. Print is what we grew up with, even the tykes among us; it’s still the base for much of our professional primary sources; and though we love our tech — because ambivalence points both ways, after all — when it comes to reading the touchstone for comparison is always the printed book. So when one of the great publishers is heard to say that one of the great books is “out of print,” we pay attention.

It seems that the Sunday Times carried a story in which the CEO of Oxford University Press said something to the effect that the current edition of the Oxford English Dictionary published in 1989, orse the OED, bids fair to be the last version that will land in ink on paper. (I’d like to be more accurate about who said what, exactly, but because the Sunday Times has retreated behind a paywall, I’m unable to read the story. Moreover, it would seem that Google no longer includes the Sunday Times in the sources it uses for its News searches. I’ve said before that this move by the Times is daft. I’ll say it again: this retreat from reality is daft.)

Few things are calculated to catch on newsfire as well as this sort of “print-is-dead” tinder. Scarcely a news source failed to repeat the story. The old order passeth, and all that.

Well, maybe not.

Oxford University Press released a brief statement today aimed at reassuring the bookish among us:

The first edition of the multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary was fully published in 1928, and the second edition in 1989. No decision has yet been made on the format of the third edition. It is likely to be more than a decade before the full edition is published, and a decision on format will be taken at that point.

A team of 80 lexicographers are currently preparing the third edition of the OED, which is 28 per cent complete. No final completion date is yet confirmed.

However, revised and new entries are published online every three months on OED Online at www.oed.com and a new version of the OED Online website will be launched in December 2010. Oxford University Press prepares the OED, and many of its other dictionaries, in a format-neutral form so that it is suitable for all types of publication.

Dictionaries are and will remain a fundamental part of OUP’s publishing. We publish 500 dictionaries, thesauruses, and language reference titles in more than 40 languages, and in a variety of print and electronic formats so that readers can access information in the most convenient way.

Demand for online resources is growing but large numbers of people continue to purchase dictionaries in printed form and we have no plans to stop publishing print dictionaries.

All right folks, move along. Nothing to see here.

In the meantime, you might like to know that the Online OED is coming out with a refurbished website this December.

But whether in print or in pixels, the queen of reference works is an expensive proposition, if you’re not connected to a university or another institution that subscribes: individuals pay $300 a year for the privilege of meaning online and $1000 for the 20 real volumes. Which shows this to be something of a tempest in a Qianlong teapot.

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