I hadn’t reckoned on the fact that Oxford University Press is an academic publisher, and the academic publishers aren’t like trade publishers. They have their own way of doing business – a model that has been the source of significant controversy in scholarly circles, but which has largely passed over the heads of the civilian population of non-scholarly readers.
OUP – which has been selling dictionaries and thesauri since the 19th century – will not sell you a digital OED or HTOED. Not for any price.
Instead, these books are rented by the month, accessed via the internet by logged-in users. If you stop paying, your access to these books is terminated.
I mentioned this to some librarians at the American Library Association conference in Chicago this spring and they all said, effectively: “Welcome to the club. This is what we have to put up with all the time.”
Academic, reference and research libraries have become accustomed to renting their access to journals and important reference works.
These services are called “subscriptions,” but the word “subscribe” has a new meaning for libraries. For hundreds of years, libraries that subscribed to periodicals got to keep them forever. When I worked in libraries, I was accustomed to shelving, repairing and circulating periodicals that stretched back decades – sometimes rebound in handsome almanacs, sometimes in archival formats like fiche or film, often in lovingly maintained original paper.
Libraries “subscribed” to periodicals the same way I did – and just as I got to keep my back-issues of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, so too could my local library retain its copies of important research journals forever.
To “subscribe” to a magazine was to purchase all the year’s forthcoming issues in advance. But for librarians, “subscriptions” are now effectively rental agreements. I’d known about this, but it didn’t hit home until I tried to buy the digital OED and HTOED. And it got under my skin.
Oxford University is famed for many things, but among people who care about books, it is celebrated for the Bodleian Library, a “deposit” library founded in the 14th century whose remit is to collect every scholarly work published in English and store it for the ages.
Librarians at the Bodleian have literally described their mission as safeguarding essential human knowledge for future civilisations. This mission of stewardship in enduring knowledge has always inspired me. It is indisputably noble, important, and wonderful. Every time I visit Oxford and pass by the Bodleian, my heart beats a little faster.
The Bodleian – indeed, the whole idea of archiving – is incompatible with a world of digital scholarship where renting is the only option.
Thus, two of Oxford’s most iconic institutions – its deposit library and its press’s flagship titles – have each embraced a model that the other has utterly rejected.