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.


Annie said...

Indeed, Professor, that is unpalatable when a book should come to be eliminated by online sources. Not undermining the merit of virtual references, everything should be in measure; it is such a pity and shame such leading massive projects should stop enjoying popularity with readership and such profound efforts devoted to their creation sink to needlessness.

I well remember the sad entry on not editing encyclopedias any more. That's why I took care to get a copy of Your 'Cambridge Encyclopedia' before one day it comes to be impossible to find a copy of this invaluable general reference book.

Homemaker said...

Allow me to share your sorrow - although I'm not from the UK. I am from Egypt, a country usually enlisted among the third world countries despite its long history and distinguished educational institutions like Al-Azhar and Cairo University - according to what President Obama said in his address to the Muslim world from Cairo University last June.

I am one of those people who value the printed book so much for typically the same reasons you mentioned. Yet, let's not deny the fact that books have become so expensive. An effort has to be done as to subsidise book publishing. Here in Egypt, the first lady is patronizing an annual "Reading For All" festival in which books are published at much cheaper prices. The most expensive book can be sold at EGP5.

I believe that we can do a similar thing for reference books or books on language so that they are affordable to all people who may need them. I can still remember the CUP and OUP low-priced editions of references. I have some of them in my library. If I talk about Egypt, we don't have access to sources of books like these very often. Maybe in the UK things can be different.


Dr. Rufus said...

Yes, Professor, online sources (and resources) have indeed become the order of the day - wherein quality standards go for a toss, and reference editing expertise gets 'outsmarted'!

While onlide Info providers like Wiki are partly to blame for the predicament, it's sad to note that even newspapers of repute have fallen from their standards and have started compromising on their reference editing/accuracy parameters.

More so in a developing country like ours (India) where we are slowly waking up to the demands of good English, it's indeed disheartening to see a whole lot of inaccurate information/irrelevant 'reference editing' piling up every other day in the media - especially the daily Newspaper and the Internet - hubs of information.

Way to go..?

Leigh Forbes said...

I too am very sad about this development with Chambers, though I recognise that the relentless move towards online resources is unstoppable.

For my own part, I would not be without my Chamber's Dictionary. In moments of relaxed referring (usually when doing the crossword) I simply love the weight of the book and the feel of the paper.

But, alas, these moments are few and far between, and for work I invariably use the Chamber's Online. I have neither space on my desk, or in my head, to use the printed version as an everyday tool. It is a luxury: it was a birthday present.

I wish the folk at Chambers well. They are real people. I have enjoyed their blogging and tweeting, and pray that this is to continue, rather than that we should witness the name of Chambers vanishing into the faceless leviathan of yet another multinational.

DC said...

Latest news (9 October press release) is that the proposed closure is to be reviewed at a high-level meeting in Paris. The meeting has been called by the staff representative body of Lagardère, the group of which Hachette UK is a part. This body has requested that the threatened redundancies be postponed until the end of the year while an independent financial study is undertaken into the case for maintaining some or all of the Chambers Harrap operation in Edinburgh. This development comes amid growing concern about the consequences of the proposed closure for the future of publishing in Scotland.

The reaction of the Lagardère Works Council which represents group staff in Paris echoes the widespread dismay expressed in Scotland over the planned closure of the iconic Chambers firm, a decision described as an act of 'cultural vandalism' by one shocked commentator.

Meanwhile, the campaign to save one of Scotland’s oldest and most historic publishing companies continues to grow. The local MSP Malcolm Chisholm immediately raised the issue in the Scottish parliament, and John Swinney, the Secretary for Finance, has asked Scottish Enterprise to consult with Hachette in a search for alternatives to closure. David Martin MEP, Edinburgh MPs Mark Lazarowicz and Gavin Strang, and MSPs Christopher Harvie and Margo Macdonald are among others who have called the closure into question, as has Scottish journalist Neal Ascherson - as, of course, has this blog.

Harry Campbell said...

A petition to keep Chambers in Edinburgh is now available to sign at

Am I alone in being shocked at how little attention has been paid to this matter in the media south of the border? Almost nothing has appeared in the "national" press, apart from the trade journal The Bookseller and a few lines in the Financial Times. This is not just a little local matter, it's a potential tragedy for the dictionary industry as a whole, and has much to say about the future of reference publishing in a digital age.

I can't help thinking what a great service it would be if some distinguished author much respected by the media were to write an article about it in one of the broadsheets. Someone with a background in linguistics and publishing and lexicography and all that kind of thing? Seriously, who better than the author of this esteemed blog?

DC said...

Unfortunately, I'm in the middle of a rather hectic US tour, and can't take up that suggestion in the near future. But I'll certainly see if anyone is interested when I'm back, if someone else hasn't taken up the challenge in the meantime.

OutEast said...

A serious question, though: do we need multiple dictionaries? And if so, why? I know Chambers has a certain cachet for its occasional whimsicality, but does it really do anything that the OED doesn't do as well or better?

DC said...

Of course we do. Dictionaries are written by human beings with particular agendas, and no two present the language in the same way. The OED, for example, is a historical dictionary. Compare the definitions of selected entries in a set of dictionaries and you'll soon see the strengths and weaknesses of individual approaches. Even coverage varies enormously, as I illustrate in my Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, comparing two unabridged dictionaries. It would be a very bad day if people placed all their reliance on one dictionary.

Harry Campbell said...

@OutEast It's a fair question, but rather like asking whether the world needs more than one model of car. Why doesn't everyone just drive the biggest, most complicated, most expensive car there is, since that must be the best? Well, even if we call all afford one, a Rolls-Royce is not suitable for every driver. I have often been asked "You say you're working on French dictionary? But there's one already, I've got one at home, had it for years."