Cory Doctorow tracks the Oxford English Dictionary's online future
A recent column in the Guardian by journalist and science-fiction author Cory Doctorow throws light on the fascinating relationship between web-based technology and two highly revered reference works that, he says, “are to a writer what an anvil is to a blacksmith”: the Oxford English Dictionary and its accompanying Historical Thesaurus.
The piece lays out the OED’s transition decades ago from multivolume hard copies to digital formats like CD-ROM—never less than expensive to buy, but always beloved by English-language scholars and writers everywhere as a kind warehouse of centuries-old knowledge about word origins and usage.
Doctorow’s concern is with what happened when Oxford University Press converted the text into the online version it now offers. As he notes, “OUP—which has been selling dictionaries and thesauri since the 19th century—will not sell you a digital OED….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.”
That means users of this linguistic landmark face the same convoluted licensing agreements—and even, to some extent, the same kind of data-mining—that they do when buying music online or setting up a webmail account.
Does that sound like the work of an august academic institution? Or another data-hungry online company? Doctorow—hardly a digital luddite—goes a fair distance to be balanced in the piece. “The point,” he writes, however, “is that we have sleepwalked into a new way of accessing some very ancient tools.”