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Wayne Jones

Searching the Oxford Reference Collection

Illustration of an open laptop and a mug full of a dark beverage. The laptop screen looks like a bookshelf full of reference books.
Illustration of an open laptop and a mug full of a dark beverage. The laptop screen looks like a bookshelf full of reference books.
Copyright: juliatim

I’m a minimalist in almost all aspects of my life. The decor of my condo is spare. It’s not polished concrete like you see in those gigantic open-concept loft apartments that have been converted from warehouse spaces (though frankly I see the appeal).

I generally don’t keep things unless I need them or unless they have strong sentimental value. I am ruthless at decluttering. This, combined with the fact that — perhaps like many editors — I am also extremely well organized, means that of the things I do keep, I know exactly where all of them are all the time. Photo album with a pic of me from 40 years ago in wide lapels at a cousin’s wedding? Guest room, closet storage. Annotated style guide from one of the academic journals I do copy editing for? Folder discreetly tucked atop some of the books in the section of the bookcase where I keep my offline editing tools.

Many minimalists (I am one of them) also love minimalist design of all kinds, from furniture to software. But minimalist software design can be hard to come by. I do understand that there’s a learning curve for new software, but only to a point. Past that point, I get grumpy and either abandon the software or live with it but complain about it whenever I get a chance. Microsoft Word falls into that category. Is that really the best that a company worth billions of dollars could do?

Similarly, I like (appreciate, demand) minimalism and intuitive usability in any websites I use. It takes a talented web designer to take a huge amount of information and organize it so that you can get to where you want to go with a few obvious clicks. Of course, the content has to be valuable as well. A well-designed website with nothing to say or to offer is of, well, minimal use.

Which brings me to the thing I want to talk about: the section of the Oxford Reference Collection that members of Editors Canada have access to. I retired from Carleton University Library about four years ago, and that collection was one of the main electronic resources that we had access to. I was a bit surprised that our editors’ organization also has a licence and provides access to members. It’s hard to overstate what a gift this is, what a huge trove of authoritative reference tools it offers.

The collection contains over 1,200 separate reference books, of which the Editors Canada subscription provides access to only about 400. Still, that means:

  • 7 dictionaries and thesauri of the English language, including the necessary though lamentably outdated (2004) Canadian Oxford Dictionary, and dictionaries of American, Australian, and New Zealand English
  • 18 bilingual dictionaries, including Spanish, Italian, German, Irish, Welsh, Latin and several flavours of French (none with white sauce)
  • 22 specialized English-language reference works dealing with (among other topics) usage, style, slang, etymology, idioms, proverbs, rhyming and even eponyms
  • about 350 subject dictionaries covering everything from photography to cheese

One great feature of the collection is that you can search all the works at the same time. I tried the word sesquipedalian, and it appears 556 times (that’s from 1,950,779 entries searched in 390 books). Favourite fact: all but 11 of these results are from the New Oxford Rhyming Dictionary, which gives words from Zoroastrian to Abbevillian as loose rhymes. Who knew?

The big problem with the Oxford Reference Collection is its web design. Specifically, the fact that the search box is tiny. It reminds me of one of the main rules in domestic industrial design, and a rule which when followed makes the object intuitively easy to use: make the most-used buttons or other inputs the biggest and most obvious on the object. Look at Google as the obvious example, but also look at the online catalogues of almost all libraries now, both academic and public: one big search box. It may be an “Oxford thing,” because it is the same in the interface for the great Oxford English Dictionary (not part of this collection): the search box is tiny there as well.

In summary, the tiny search box notwithstanding, we have a real treasure here in the Oxford Reference Collection.


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