The definition of change

Print versions of dictionaries and other reference books are fading away, but there’s much to learn — and spend — online

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / January 28, 2011

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A few months ago, I met a scholar responsible for curating one entry in the 60-volume Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. His bailiwick was a long-gone, 19th-century poet. Sometimes changes need to be made, he told me. Modern scholars correct a date or dredge up a draft fragment that might affect the interpretation of a famous stanza.

“I check it out,’’ he said, “and I alert Oxford. They make the change right there, online. I doubt that book will ever be published again.’’

Oxford execs don’t like to speculate whether the ODNB or the better-known, 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, which is undergoing a decades-long, aardvark-to-zebra revision, will appear in new print editions. “I wouldn’t rule out future print editions of these great works,’’ says scholarly and reference director Robert Faber. “There’s no reason to make that decision now.’’

The venerable Encyclopedia Britannica needs to decide soon whether to invest $6 million to $7 million in a 16th edition, or invest the money in its online products. “The economics [of print] are almost antiquated,’’ says senior vice president Michael Ross. “And the minute after you go to press, the books start turning into brown bananas.’’

My exchange with Oxford’s Poetry Man prompted me to wonder: Will anyone ever print another reference work again?

Let’s tour America’s reference boneyard: Microsoft’s Encarta dictionary; the Random House Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language; Webster’s College Dictionary; the Merriam-Webster Biographical Dictionary, and the Encyclopedia Americana, among others.

Having said that, there is some life left in the print reference business. It sounds hokey, but uncles and aunts still give their nieces and nephews dictionaries and thesauruses when they graduate. “Back-to-school and graduation are our Christmas season,’’ says Peter Sokolowsky, editor at large for Springfield-based Merriam-Webster. Print versions of M-W’s College Thesaurus, the Merriam-Webster Visual Dictionary, and the classic Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary sell well, he says. “The category is alive but not as healthy as it once was.’’

Reference works are finding a home online because the technology permits mind-bending integration of databases that you can’t do in print. In 1997 Merriam, for instance, decided to put its dictionary on the Web, for free. Now you can look up words on the free site, not only in the Collegiate dictionary (access to the Unabridged costs $29 a year), but also in Merriam’s Thesaurus.

There’s more. If English is your second language, Merriam will route you to the Learner’s Dictionary to hear the word pronounced, and in some cases will link to a brief cite from the Encyclopedia Britannica, owned by the same man who owns Merriam. (Curiously, owner Jacqui Safra has no listing in Britannica. You need Wikipedia to remind you that he invested in several Woody Allen films under the pseudonym J.C. Beaucaire. But I digress.)

Britannica is hesitant to invest more money in print because 90 percent of its North American revenues come from online product sales, mainly to institutions. “The institutional market has dramatically changed, away from print archives to e-book archives,’’ Ross says. “The libraries are struggling with this issue.’’ Britannica online — $103 a year for an individual subscriber — offers all kinds of charts, maps, videos, and graphics that the book-bound customers will never see.

Case in point: Harry Houdini wrote the Britannica entry on “conjuring’’ for the 13th edition. (It has since been updated by Ricky Jay.) But online, in one place, you can read Houdini’s bio, his 1926 essay, and the more modern Jay article. That is not possible in print.

For the next few days you have free access to the astonishing historical and lexicological horsepower of the Oxford reference apparat at The free log in and password are “trynewoed.’’ I asked for an advanced search of the phrase “in spate,’’ which means flooding. Of course you get a host of relevant quotations dating back to the 16th century, along with cross-references to Oxford’s thesaurus and historical thesaurus.

Here is what you don’t get. The OED is cross-indexed with the Dictionary of National Biography, the Oxford Companion to British History, and other reference products, but you’ll have to pay quite a bit. After Feb 5., a subscription to the OED will cost you $295 a year, plus an additional $295 if you want to access the ODNB. The Companion isn’t available to individual subscribers.

Ouch! (“Expressing sudden pain . . .’’; first reference 1838.) Double ouch! I guess I’m stuck with my poky (“unstimulating, dull’’; first reference 1828) print OED for the foreseeable future.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is