Wednesday 16 September 2009

Everyone’s an expert

The Herald and the Scotsman have their say on the ChambersHarrap closure today. Surprise surprise, not one news source anywhere seems to have quoted a real live lexicographer on the subject, or indeed anyone that works in dictionaries.

The culture minister, Michael Russell, a former television producer and author, feels that “it does, to a certain extent, reflect the changing patterns of how research and reference are now undertaken.” No doubt he’s right, but why couldn’t we hear from someone who actually knows about how all that affects dictionary sales?

Philip Jones of the Bookseller magazine claims that “so much is available faster and for free online. It doesn’t have the credibility that a print book has, but mostly people would tend to look online rather than buy a book for £10 that might go out of date in six months.” Again, no doubt true, though a tenner doesn’t go far these days, it’s the price of a round of drinks or couple of glossy magazines at an airport, and less than the tourist guide to the place you’re flying to, and those things date a fair sight faster than dictionaries. In my experience people see a dictionary as about as ephemeral as a bible, and buy a new one about as often.

Marion Sinclair of Publishing Scotland (formerly the Scottish Publishers Association) says “dictionaries have migrated online and a lot of people have the attitude that it doesn’t matter about the brand name. But often it doesn’t have the wealth of lexicography behind it. That is a real specialist skill and that is what we are in danger of losing.” Very good point, but one that would perhaps have been better made by a lexicographer. And, pace Ms Sinclair, actually it doesn’t matter much about the brand name. What matters is that the thing is properly written by someone who knows what they’re doing and then regularly updated, something that is indeed under threat.

Oh and by the way, assuming Google News is to be trusted, not one lousy English newspaper has even mentioned the story yet.


  1. Great stuff Harry, though I'm not sure what your reference to the 'lousy English' press is about; when the UK press reports Scottish stories - of any kind - they can be more reliable than the accounts we get in the frowsy Scottish press.

    Will forward my Holyrood letter to you; the proposed closure is a bloody scandal and am glad the NUJ are fighting the corner.

  2. Perhaps I should have said "not one single English newspaper". Whether it's lack of interest in things Scottish, or indeed anywhere outside London, or what, I make no judgement. But I do think it's a disgrace, especially considering the sheer volume and often banality of what makes it into the papers. It could have been a starting-point for an interesting and very relevant discussion of what's going to happen to reference publishing in the internet age.

  3. I'm amazed that there has not been much of a fuss at all so far in Scotland - so far.

    I get the feeling that if Hachette's head office had been in London rather than in Paris we would be hearing from Salmond - as he said of Diageo - of the distance of 'London boardrooms'.

    Anyway this fight is not over!