While many venerable reference works have faded into obscurity in the digital age, Oxford University Press remains determined to keep another reference bible, the Oxford English Dictionary, the world's largest and preeminent English-language dictionary. As part of that commitment, earlier this month OUP held a celebration at its English head offices to mark the 80th anniversary of the OED's first publication.

Although the dictionary is used today overwhelmingly in electronic form, the first edition of the work was deemed complete in 1933 with the release of the dictionary in 13 volumes. In 1957, however, Robert Burchfield, an unknown English language academic, was hired to begin work on a thorough supplement to the dictionary, and four volumes, A—Z, appeared between 1972 and 1976. The additional material soon created a quandary for OUP, as Simon Wratten, former sales and marketing director at OUP, recalled: “It was not exactly ideal to have the dictionary exist in two distinct alphabetical sequences.” While the need to merge the two was clear, the method was not, since OUP was not willing to engage in the world's largest cut-and-paste job.

The solution came from Richard Charkin, then deputy academic publisher, who suggested digitizing the texts and integrating them electronically. With help from the U.K. government, IBM, ICC and text experts from the University of Waterloo, the massive digitization exercise was soon underway.

The result was impressive—and conventional: 20 handsome volumes published in 1989 as the Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition. More than 30,000 sets have since been sold. But of infinitely greater importance was the conversion of the printed text into an SGML-encoded database, which would allow publication in electronic form.

The initial result was a CD-ROM published in 1992, but the advance of the Internet soon focused OUP's attentions on an online version, which would overlap with the thorough revision of the historical core of the entire dictionary (a putative Third Edition). The online version of the dictionary became available in March 2000, on a subscription basis, and CD-ROM sales have continued (and are over 1,000 units a year worldwide), chiefly to individuals who want to “own” the OED, rather than subscribe.

As the third edition of the dictionary develops, online updates are being issued quarterly. Work is slow, and Edmund Weiner, the deputy head of the editorial team working on the revision, estimates the entire process will take at least 10 more years.

OUP remains coy about online sales of the OED, but acknowledges that revenue from all formats is less than the £4 million annual expenditure on editorial work (there are roughly 1,500 individual subscribers at $295 per annum and some 4,000 institutional subscribers, at a wide range of rates depending on their network size). OUP executives, however, believe the benefits of the OED's prestige to OUP, and to its extensive line of other dictionaries, outweigh whatever money it loses on one of its flagship publications. The OED could be considered an expensive crown jewel to have, but by digitizing this priceless asset so early, the OUP has been able to position the OED as a unique mix of ancient pedigree and high-tech utility.