Wednesday 30 September 2009

On Chambers

I've just heard of a sad development in British publishing. It was announced a few days ago that the firm of Chambers Harrap in Edinburgh is threatened with closure by their parent company Hachette UK. Apparently this decision has been motivated by falling sales of print reference works.

I have a strong sense of deja vu. Readers of this blog with long memories will recall that I bemoaned the closing of my own encyclopedia editorial office in early 2008. Penguin had stopped publishing encyclopedias for the same reason. It's the emergence of free online sources of information that were the reason then, and I imagine the same factor accounts for the decision about Chambers now.

It's so short-sighted, though. The one thing the online sources cannot do is provide the quality control that comes from years of experience in reference editing. In the case of Chambers, we're talking about products, such as The Chambers Dictionary, which have benefitted from an editorial tradition that goes back over a century. I knew the Chambers team well in the late 1980s and 90s, as they were responsible for the production of the work that was eventually called The Cambridge Encyclopedia, and published by CUP. Cambridge and Chambers were in a joint venture project at the time. When the two parties separated, I sat on the Chambers board for a while, advising on their new projects, and doing some writing and editing in a series called Making Sense of... The professionalism and expertise of the Chambers editors was second to none. I'm horrified at the thought that this might now be lost, and hope that, even at this late stage, some rethinking might take place.

It will only be a matter of time before people realize that online reference sources created by anyone who cares to contribute cannot match the judicious selection and checking of material, and the attentive concern for presentation and style, that we find in the quality reference literature. While enterprises such as wikipedia are fine for browsing, I would personally never use a piece of information found there without checking its accuracy. For the worlds I know, the errors are legion. For the world I know best - me - I'm tired of correcting the errors that are introduced by unknown forces in the 'David Crystal' entry.

Wiki is trying to sort things out by introducing a tier of editorial management, but, as far as I can see, without giving anyone the training that is essential in order for this to be done properly. It's an expensive business, ensuring that quality standards are maintained. But it's money well-spent, because humanity needs accurate, consistent, and intelligible inter-generational transmission of information. It's profoundly disturbing to think that the very people who are in the best position to guarantee our intellectual future are being made redundant. And it's especially ironic, in the case of Chambers, when we think that Edinburgh has been made the first UNESCO City of Literature.