Death of the print dictionary?

12 Jan

“Like maps and encyclopedias – but unlike novels or newspapers – dictionaries are things you consult (while you’re doing something else) rather than things you read. For any kind of reference enquiry, the book really can be improved upon, and at Macmillan, we’ve taken the decision to phase out printed dictionaries and focus on our rich and expanding collection of digital resources.”

Rundell, M. (2012) Stop the presses – the end of the print dictionary www.macmillandictionaryblog.com/bye-print-dictionary

Macmillan Dictionary announced towards the end of 2012 that they would no longer be printing dictionaries. They were going 100% digital.  Many dictionary users around the world shrugged their shoulders. If there has ever been a print product in need of regular updating, and benefitting from a digital format, then it’s the dictionary. Digital dictionaries enable easy searching, audio (and therefore pronunciations you can hear as well as read) and portability. For many years dictionary users have been able to load content on to their PCs from CD-ROMs and we now have eBooks and online products with integrated dictionaries, plus a wealth of free online options and low-cost (and high-cost) mobile apps. Since 2010, winners of the popular UK TV show Countdown have received a laptop and lifetime subscription to Oxford Online, replacing the long-standing traditional prize of a leather-bound, 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary. Macmillan may have been the first to make a formal announcement, but all dictionary publishers have been going digital for years.

So the print dictionary is dead, right? Or are we getting it dead wrong?

Last week I presented details of our 2013 plans for ELT dictionary publishing at the Cambridge University Press ELT winter sales conference in Athens. These plans include a new (fourth) PRINT edition of the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, due to be published in Spring 2013. And the reason we’re doing this? In simple terms, because there’s still demand from our customers. Whilst digital immigrants are becoming more accepting of content in digital format, and digital natives expect it, given the choice there is still a solid market for print, and this includes dictionaries. A presentation at the same conference from a hugely successful Greek wholesaler illustrated that this is particularly true in Greece where, despite the country’s economic woes, the ELT industry continues to provide a good living for print book sellers and distributors who work effectively with publishers, and who understand what their customers want. For me, it underlined the importance of taking an objective look at the markets, listening to customers and analysing data objectively, rather than making dangerous assumptions or predictions and then applying them globally, based on my own digital preferences or customer behaviours in the UK.

So if it’s generally accepted that digital dictionaries are a good idea, why this continued interest in print? When the Macmillan announcment appeared online I put a question about the value of print dictionaries to a business English Linkedin group. Opinions were mixed, but here are some of the responses in favour of print:

“I like using print versions with my younger students, because it helps them with learning the alphabet and how and where to find a word in a dictionary. It may be old-fashioned but I still think it is an essential skill to learn.”

“I still hand students monolingual dictionaries in class as their phones only have bi-lingual ones. And sometimes just looking at a whole page (especially those with wonderful illustrations) is better than checking online.”

“There is no doubt that searching for a word in a book has a value that cannot be found in pressing a key. The imprint it makes on a person and his memory is different perhaps because it involves his human faculties. An online dictionary puts the meaning in front of you as a piece of dry information without any sense of accomplishment (effort).”

“A dictionary is a great resource … once opened, it’s difficult for a motivated student to close. I find students use printed dictionaries both at home and in the classroom – they feel comfortable with them …”

Clearly then, not everyone is in favour of dictionaries only being available digitally, and perhaps because of the particular ways dictionaries are used when learning another language, it seems the ELT community will continue to embrace print, as long as it’s available. You’ll find similar comments on the Macmillan blog.

However, the process of publishing planning is a detailed and complex one, heavily dependent on financial viability and therefore not nearly as simple as just looking at sales figures and speaking to customers and distributors. There is no guarantee that Cambridge, or any other publisher, will continue to print ELT dictionaries in the coming years and our digital alternatives (online and mobile) are already making a huge impact. For example, it is thought that the free dictionaries at dictionary.cambridge.org  are the world’s most popular online ELT dictionaries. Monthly visits are in the millions, and by allowing advertising on the site Cambridge can offer users a range of quality, up-to-date dictionaries completely free of charge. There’s also an API developer hub.

For the time being though, Cambridge will continue to offer learners and teachers of English a choice – and many are choosing to access our dictionaries in more than one way. As we stride in to 2013, it seems that the reported death of the print dictionary in 2012 was an exaggeration.

Find out more about Cambridge print dictionaries and mobile apps at www.selfstudy.cambridge.org

Free Cambridge ELT dictionaries can be accessed at dictionary.cambridge.org

Follow Cambridge ELT dictionaries, including ‘Word of the Day’:

Facebook www.facebook.com/pages/Cambridge-Dictionaries-Online

WordPress dictionaryblog.cambridge.org

Twitter @CambridgeWords

CALD4new

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3 Responses to “Death of the print dictionary?”

  1. icaltefl January 13, 2013 at 11:43 am #

    Unfortunately I think print dictionaries are in a losing war. I love my dictionaries and (in contrast to the quote at the beginning) actually do occasionally get lost in reading them and finding weird and wonderful words to play with.

    But in my everyday work it’s all online. An unknown word? Check it online. Uncertain of a definition? Check it online. Searching for a word? Where before it used to be twenty minutes or so going through Roget’s and his arcane categories, now it’s an online search.

    Yes, it’s a pity, I love my dictionaries in the same way I loved my slide rule and I remember the battle in class between those and calculators. I’ve still my slide rule as a reminder of the good old days but when was the last time I used it?

    • idc74 January 13, 2013 at 10:28 pm #

      I agree. It’s only matter of time before digital dictionaries replace printed ones, but I think it could be another year or two, perhaps even longer, before printed dictionaries start to disappear from language classrooms around the world. Not every learner has access to a smartphone or iPad, and the internet isn’t always readily available. Until this changes, there will continue to be demand for print.

      • Lexical Leo February 6, 2013 at 10:07 pm #

        Cambridge Advanced Dictionary is my favourite online dictionary (and my students’ too !) but I’ve always been partial to the print version of Macmillan.
        L

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