treasurehouse of language


If you want the definitive word on the meanings of “pretty” in Jane Austen’s time, the tricky etymology of “bank,” the earliest attested use of “bromance,” or almost any other philological matter in English, you need to consult The Oxford English Dictionary. Now, definitive may not mean infallible in every case, but it does mean surveyed, over 130 years, by thousands of readers reading millions of sources and sending citations to editors who curate the world’s oldest tagged database of words and linked corpus of assorted sentences.

Every town and city library used to have a copy of the twelve-volume edition and its occasional update volumes. [1]  Now the OED, like everything else, is continuously maintained online with direct help from the public [2], and distributed online as well. The second and last full print edition began rolling off the presses in 1989. It was replaced first with CD-ROMs, and then with Web-based subscriptions. According to the OED website, subscribers include “nearly all public libraries in England, Scotland and Wales – and all in Northern Ireland,” and most of these provide home access to their own members with library cards.

This past year, Suffolk Libraries quietly cut its subscription to the OED. This caused me some inconvenience because I train students in linguistics modules to consult it as part of any background research on words and meanings, out of due diligence. All of a sudden it was not there. I spoke to the librarians and confirmed the cut. I checked the budgets and reports, which were not very detailed – Suffolk Libraries is an independent charity contracted by the local council. The cut did not seem to be mentioned but there were other things about the living wage, which is good, and yes, I get that we are in austerity Britain. We’ll be trialling the OED at the university in the fall.

This week I decided to examine the OED’s claim of coverage through public libraries  by visiting the websites of every county library system in England. I anticipated finding out that many other libraries had cut their OED subscriptions (cue Private Eye story) – or else finding out they hadn’t and establishing a baseline for future checks. It didn’t take long to check, but the survey was never going to be perfect because:

  • Not all county libraries are organized into a system.
  • England is not perfectly tiled with counties.
  • I did not have time to check every unitary authority, nor with all the libraries in London where there appears to be no unified public library system.

I checked 45 counties [3] and other authorities as of August 8. Of these, 38 clearly said the service was available to subscribers and nearly all of those said you could use it at home with a library card. Suffolk is definitely in the minority in cutting this service, but not alone.

The more interesting part was the way the different libraries presented their electronic resources. There were only a couple of  stunning standalone sites: Read Liverpool and the new Library of Birmingham. More typically, English public library systems have pages on the local council website, alongside taxes and refuse collection. Often this seems to be their only site. Libraries with their own websites most often use that generic scalable site design that combines pictures with color blocks (see for instance, Liverpool‘s council-linked portal).

Even where the website was fairly standard, the categories were not.

  • Headings under which the OED could logically be found included E-resources, Information, Reference & Learning. Sometimes it could only be found on an A-Z resource list.
  • Other less logical headings included Homework Help (Sheffield), Ancestry & online resources (Staffordshire), and Archives and Family History (Liverpool council site, bizarrely, linking through to reference site). These signal what libraries and their patrons find valuable in 2016. [1]
  • In terms of competing resources, almost every library seemed to have and many a driving theory practice program and the GoCitizen naturalization test progam. The better equipped libraries also offered Newsbank or the British Newspaper Archive and the Times digital archive. Quite a few including Suffolk, I am pleased to say, have the new Access to Research database of academic articles – Summon for the public, though you do have to go the library to use it.
  • Some councils made efforts to promote their online resources. Tyne & Wear – Newcastle City Council flagged their “24-hour library” where subscribers could “access premium websites.” Staffordshire noted that “We pay so you don’t have to.” Or rather, you pay collectively so each individual pays hardly anything, but that must have seemed a less attractive proposition to the council.
  • Shropshire posted a service cancellation notice for the Times Digital Archive. This was the only acknowledgement of budget cuts that I saw.

We must make sure everyone in Britain has access to the OED and other “premium” offerings, and continues to have access. We must be transparent about what e-resources cost local libraries and how decisions on their provision are made. It could make sense to form larger regional consortia to share the costs. It shouldn’t be too difficult. The price of a library subscription to the OED is not public but a personal subscription currently costs £215 a year, down from £240 reported in the Telegraph in 2010.

[1] From the 1970s, OUP also offered what fashion houses call a “diffusion line”:  compact editions for home. These had microscopic type and came with the necessary magnifying glass. The archival-quality cardboard shelf box with the little drawer for the glass was what sold it.

[2] I was briefly enrolled as an official reader during graduate school, but dropped out when coding the citations for their custom software took longer than reading the books. My moment as a reader came too late for paper slips, too soon for user-friendly crowdsourcing.

[3] I followed Wikipedia’s list of Counties of England, excluding those whose entries when clicked through began, “West Dipshire was an English county …”  rather than “West Dipshire is an English county.” Coverage was still messy given my self-imposed time limit of a couple of hours for the project.

(Post and link to table of findings have been shared with an OED editor I met at a con this summer.)

(Update: More than 50 jobs could go at Suffolk Libraries due to budget cuts – August 2017; Suffolk Libraries face £230,000 budget cut as bosses call for more public support to save all 44 branches – November 2016)

Posted on by Diana ben-Aaron
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.