Tuesday, October 27, 2009


To axe the Chambers dictionary would be the definition of foolish
Robert McCrum joins the campaign to save the historic Scottish publishing company
The Observer, Sunday 25 October 2009

An earthquake in information technology more destructive than anything since Gutenberg continues to take its toll on the landscape of the printed word. A few weeks ago, by chance, this column described that great Scottish institution, Chambers, as setting "the gold standard among dictionaries". I happen to love Chambers for its bracing Edinburgh clarity and its distance from the hegemony of the south (Oxford, HarperCollins, Penguin and, lately, Bloomsbury), but don't take my word for it. Go out and buy a copy.

When the column appeared online, the blogosphere went into action with all its merry vehemence. Surely it was common knowledge that its parent company, Hachette UK, wanted to close Chambers down? How could I not have known this? Well, sorry, I didn't. But it was a moment's work to uncover a truly grim situation.

The Scots publisher, Chambers, was established in 1819, in the magnificent afterglow of the Scottish enlightenment, by brothers William and Robert Chambers, who produced their first dictionary in 1867. It soon became a pillar of Victorian self-help, founded on local scholarship, and renowned for its authority and usefulness. An important part of Chambers's appeal is that it has always been a no-nonsense, one-volume dictionary, without airs and graces.
Dictionaries, as I've implied, are literary artefacts from a self-improving age of quires and hot metal, but Chambers survived against the odds until, early in the 1990s, it merged with the reference company Harrap. A second consolidation in 2007 brought another Victorian treasure, Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, into the fold.

All of this signals just one message. Reference publishing has been in trouble since the 1980s. As the online revolution gained momentum, reference-book publishers such as OUP took drastic measures to keep up. Oxford was lucky: it enjoyed charitable status and could invest in its future. Chambers Harrap had no such privileges. Squeezed for resources, it failed to adjust to virtual publishing and ended up as part of Hachette UK, itself a subsidiary of the French company Lagardère. Darwinian laws operate as ruthlessly in the book world as in any South American jungle.

Read the rest of McCrum's passionate plea at The Observer.

2 comments:

NZBookgirl said...

I'm interested to know what reference books people in the lit community use (or does everyone just Google?). I have a falling apart Oxford Reference Dictionary that is nearly always on the table, and I love Mark Broatch's 'In a Word' tho it took me a little while to work out how to use it. Are there any reference books you use regularly Graham?

Bookman Beattie said...

I too admire and use Mark Broatch's book and it sits here on my desk along with Roget's Thesaurus.
But on my reference bookshelf, arm's length away, are just about all the reference books you can think of - various dictionares, several editions of the Oxford Dictionary, Brewers Book of Phrase & Fable etc.
But these days my main reference source is Google or if I need to check spelling or useage of a word the Collins Dictionary that is loaded on to my computer. Collins published a largish new English Dictionary, about 3 years ago I think, which came with a CD Rom which I downloaded. It is so useful.