November 16, 2017

Q&A with Casper Grathwohl, Publisher, Oxford Reference

By Mirela Roncevic

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After recently learning about the operation behind the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)—what it takes to put together a single entry—I wonder if producing any other kind of resource pales in comparison to producing a historical dictionary. What has been the biggest revelation for you about the OED?
Better than any other tool I’ve encountered, the OED starkly highlights how accelerated cultural shifting has actually become. The English language is evolving at a dizzying rate. When I watch the OED editors (see Q&A Oxford English Dictionary Publisher Casper Grathwohlwith Chief Editor John Simpson) monitor new word lists, I marvel that any of us can watch a movie or read a magazine from even ten years ago and understand what people are saying! Of course the tools we use to track the change have become more sophisticated too, so it makes the rate seem faster because it’s now so transparent.

With other reference works, especially in relatively stable academic fields, you don’t have the sense of this constant evolution. If you want to amass ten volumes worth of content on Victorian literature, your target isn’t moving very fast. In comparison, dictionary making is like tracking a warren of rabbits jumping in every direction. The OED is like doing that in the present and in every historical era of the last 1000 years all at the same time. Thinking about it like that gives me a new appreciation for our lexicographers.

Do you see any notable differences in the way subject-specific A-to-Z’s have been challenged by the Internet and related technologies when compared to language dictionaries?
The OED’s life online has been fascinating. It was the first online product we launched and because of its reputation and ease of use online it became an instant success story. We’d been very successful with the online publishing we’ve launched since, but the OED remains the jewel in our online publishing crown: the same position it’s held in print.

It’s most interesting to look at the OED in light of the recent Google settlement. Google is making hundreds of thousands of historical publications readily available to anyone with an Internet connection. But the farther you go back historically, the higher the barrier of language becomes. Sentences start getting confusing if you don’t know how the words were being used 100 or 200 years ago. The OED holds the key to unlocking the power and relevance of this historical writing. As Google unearths a treasure trove of historical artifacts and writings, the OED serves as its Rosetta Stone. All of a sudden it has become the most important online product in a library’s portfolio.

Next year will mark 20 years since the print publication of the second edition of the OED. Would a publication of a third edition in print still be viable business-wise?
This is a really good question. We are using the publication of the third edition as a benchmark to work towards, but it’s unlikely the next edition will publish in a way that resembles the second edition. It’s likely that a print third edition will be available in a print-on-demand program for those that want to mark the moment for historical purposes.

The number of reference sets arriving at LJ offices daily is holding steady. So is the number of emails we receive about upcoming online products. In an age of budget cuts and cost savings, can we still justify the existence of both formats?
Also, more online publishing increases the need for more online organizing and validating. With information culture expanding at this dizzying rate, I suspect the validation element of online reference products will become much more pronounced. The need is obvious. There’s so much information at our fingertips we’re in danger of it all turning into white noise–libraries don’t really need publishers to be creating any more of it. What reference publishers need to do is help users navigate through it. If a reference publisher is smart, it should be scrambling to build products and tools that create knowledge and order out of all this information chaos.
[For more on the OED, also see, Q&A with Chief Editor John Simpson and Happy Birthday, OED]

With the fear that the financial crisis will run a freight train through library budgets, publishers and librarians are all talking about how to speed up the print-to-online transition. This makes perfect sense. With dissemination costs being so much lower, everyone saves money right now by going digital faster. Like journals, reference publishing is mostly an online business these days so it’s capitalizing on everyone wanting more digital. Print may be in decline, but for the moment reference publishers are seeing what they’ve built online over the last five to seven years remain in high demand.