Thursday, 29 October 2009

Scottish Unenlightenment

By now there’s been a fair bit of comment in the press, north of the border at least, on the Chambers Harrap closure in Edinburgh. It all runs along the lines of “how sad to see such a historic firm fall victim to the internet, shows how times are changing, shouldn’t be allowed”. Some writers even claim a certain quintessentially Scottish quality for Chambers dictionaries (sometimes appearing to forget that Collins is just as Scottish), recruit the heroes of the Scottish Enlightenment to their cause, or cite Edinburgh’s status as UNESCO City of Literature. While I’m not sure I quite follow that, I can’t disagree with the general drift.

But I’m still naive enough to be disappointed by the lack of any actual analysis of what’s facing reference publishing, indeed any comment from anyone who actually knows anything about it. The press have treated this as mainly a matter of sentimental pride in Scotland’s publishing history, plus the little local matter of the loss of a couple of dozen jobs, but while these are relevant, there are surely other far-reaching implications. The future of reference publishing in our information-driven society could hardly be a more relevant subject for discussion in what passes for the serious press in this country, but all we get is waffle, hand-wringing and silly puns.

Pauline McLean, blogging on The South Bank — of the Clyde that is, “every bit as lively in cultural terms as its namesake” we are told — drops in the following intriguingly casual remark, as if it were so obvious as to be hardly worth wasting keystrokes on. “Of course, reference publishing has been in trouble for decades, and not just because of the decline in sales or the increasing appeal of online editions.” Perhaps I’m being dense or pedantic, perhaps she’s writing in a hurry, but I wonder what this other malaise is, the one that has nothing to do with sales. I don’t even know how far back the current life-threatening decline in sales goes, but I would be surprised if it’s literally decades. Dictionaries were still doing OK even a decade ago, as far as I could see; two decades ago they were taking on staff. There was serious money being invested in exciting new techniques and technology for researching, editing and typesetting their products.

“Decades” ago, a computer was a huge, mysterious machine in an air-conditioned room that got your utility bills comically wrong, or maybe a little educational toy for geeky schoolboys to plug into the family telly when no-one else wanted to watch one of the three available channels. And this was before it became fashionable to describe oneself self-deprecatingly as “geeky”, in fact before we in Britain had even heard of that American word. Portable electronic gadgets of the sort we all carry now were pretty much non-existent and there was simply no alternative to paper dictionaries.

So what exactly has been happening to reference publishing over the last few years, or decades if you like? I don’t expect detailed breakdowns of sales figures, but I would like to know just how serious and recent this phenomenon is, and what will actually happen to dictionaries over the next few years. What about the all-important schools market, is it in free-fall? No commentator on the Chambers affair has mentioned this, and they show no interest in the plight of Chambers’s bilingual stablemate, Harrap. What about tourists, surely we’re not yet at the point where all of them are looking up vocab on their iPhones or even those feeble little pocket translator gadgets you used to see in the Innovations catalogue? I’d go for a cheap phrasebook or pocket dictionary any time, you can scribble in it, smear sunblock on it and swat flies with it; it won’t run out of battery and it’s not a disaster if it gets lost or stolen.

The “content” for all those electronic gadgets has to come from somewhere: have dictionary firms underpriced the goods or is there some other way in which electronic sales have failed to bring home the bacon? Those currently offering their vague valedictions don’t know (nor do I), and those who know aren’t telling.

PS: It’s not too late to sign the “Keep Chambers in Edinburgh” petition at

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I think dictionary firms have underpriced the goods for years. They thought licensing their data for electronic products was a nice way to make some extra money based on the data created for the books, and they forgot that they were possibly undermining their business in the process.
    However, that said, I'm not at all convinced that it's electronic dictionaries and other products created from "old" data that are undermining reference publishing. I think it's Google and Wikipedia that have made products available for free that are good enough and available everywhere.