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The book is dead – or is it?

Thomas J. Watson, head of the IBM Corporation from 1924 to 1956, is supposed to have said “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”. As with many famous quotations, there is a good deal of uncertainty as to whether Watson ever really said this. But history is full of predictions which, with hindsight, look laughably obtuse. For some years now, people have been predicting with great confidence that “the book is dead”. In fact, sales of printed books remain healthy – but change can happen quickly, as the rapid and almost complete shift from conventional to digital cameras has shown. As devices like the Kindle and iPad become cheaper and more widely used, will print and paper go the same way as camera film? It would be rash to predict what might happen to novels or biographies, but printed encyclopedias have almost disappeared, and printed dictionaries may soon follow.

Last week, most of the UK newspapers carried the story that the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, due in 2020, would not be published in print format. For the chattering classes, this was a shocking announcement – one journalist described it as “tragic news” and “a dark day”. The main argument in favour of the OED in book form seemed to be that it allowed for random, serendipitous discoveries, as the reader browsed contentedly through its pages. I’m not sure how many people have the luxury of spending their time in this way, but the benefits of online dictionaries will be familiar to visitors to our Macmillan site, where you can link from dictionary to thesaurus, hear how words are pronounced, keep right up to date with the changing language (and suggest additions to to the dictionary), and of course read and comment on this blog. In many ways, the online medium is just what dictionaries have been waiting for, and the future for printed dictionaries looks bleak.

Or does it? One news site in India notes that printed dictionaries are still selling well there – ironically, the site where this report appears has links to the (online) Macmillan dictionary using our double-click plugin. An interesting case is the Russian dictionary publisher ABBYY, which – in a reversal of the usual pattern – started as a digital-only publisher then later added printed dictionaries to its range. The case for publishing dictionaries in book form is that online resources aren’t available to everyone, and that more conservative users still prefer “real” dictionaries.  Both arguments are valid, but the situation will probably change quite quickly, as mobile technology extends its reach. It is hard to see why anyone was surprised by the announcement about the OED’s online future – the printed version comes in 20 volumes costing a total of £750 – so who could seriously have thought this would still be going on in 2020?

But there is still one area where the printed dictionary has no rival: check out this story from last year.

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Michael Rundell

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