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Why it matters that you can’t own an electronic copy of the Oxford English Dictionary


In my latest Guardian column, I talk about the digital versions of the Oxford English Dictionary and the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, the two most important lexicographic references to the English language. As a writer, my print copies of the OED and HTOED are to me what an anvil is to a blacksmith; but I was disturbed to learn that the digital editions of these books are only available as monthly rentals, services that come with expansive data-collecting policies and which cannot be owned. It's especially ironic that these books are published by Oxford University, home of the Bodleian, a deposit archive and library founded in the 14th century, a symbol of the importance of enduring ownership of books.

My discussions with OUP's execs convinced me that this wasn't the result of venality or greed, but rather the unfortunate consequence of a bunch of individually reasonable decisions that added up to something rather worrying. I hope that OUP and Oxford will continue to evolve its products in a way that honours the centuries-old traditions that Oxford embodies.

OUP – which has been selling dictionaries and thesauri since the 19th century – will not sell you a digital OED or HTOED. Not for any price.

Instead, these books are rented by the month, accessed via the internet by logged-in users. If you stop paying, your access to these books is terminated.

I mentioned this to some librarians at the American Library Association conference in Chicago this spring and they all said, effectively: "Welcome to the club. This is what we have to put up with all the time."

Oxford English Dictionary – the future


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