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

Notable Replies

  1. I have a copy of the compact edition bought in the early eighties from the W. H. Smith bookclub for the princely sum of GBP 40 (not a tremendous amount even then).

    For me an electronic version would be a nice thing to have but it would have to replicate one of the most important features of the paper version and that is that one can easily dip in and read at random and just keep reading. An ebook might qualify but an app never could, the app machinery will get in the way of the words. Of course it should be searchable but one does not need an app for that. Apps are just another way of putting a gatekeeper between you and your property.

  2. Oh it can be owned, it just can't be paid for.

  3. Tavie says:

    Small headline quibble: you CAN own an electronic copy - the CD-ROM - it just doesn't get continuously updated the way the site does.

  4. adonai says:

    Yeah, we'll make our own dictionary! With hookers!1 And blackjack!2

    1. Hookers plural, n. Prostitute or street walker
    2. Blackjack n. Card game, also known as Twenty-one**3**
    3. In fact, forget about the dictionary

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