Dictionaries and other book-like objects

Sarah O'Keefe / Conferences2 Comments

Closing keynote from Erin McKean, Chief Consulting Editor, American Dictionaries, Oxford University Press

A dictionary is really not a book; it is only a book-shaped object.

This presentation is loaded with visuals and loses a LOT in translation to text. Interesting coming from a lexicographer.

What makes a book a prototypical example of a standard book? The Bible might be the canonical (ha) example, but as the publishers don’t pay royalties (“at least not to the author”), it’s a not-great example.

Dictionaries don’t act like books. People don’t read them from cover to cover. Dictionaries are tagged from the beginning. Dictionaries are commodified; branding isn’t very good for dictionaries. When searching for a particular novel, you won’t settle for a different novel. That’s not the case for dictionaries.

The smallest dictionaries are only 10 percent of the content of the largest ones.

Books are written. Dictionaries are compiled and then revised.

“The one-author book is the prototype, but there hasn’t been a one-author dictionary in about 200 years.”

Dictionaries are the exception to almost all the rules in a publishing house — special paper, special fonts, specialized copy editors, and so on.

“Dictionaries are shaped like books between the book metaphor is very powerful.”

But the book metaphor has lost its usefulness for dictionaries.

“Information wants to be ambient.” It needs context.

And….books are not convenient enough. Need — yes — immediacy!

“What other book-shaped objects are you publishing that aren’t really books? Would users be served better by a different shape?”


About the Author

Sarah O'Keefe


Content strategy consultant and founder of Scriptorium Publishing. Bilingual English-German, voracious reader, water sports, knitting, and college basketball (go Blue Devils!). Aversions to raw tomatoes, eggplant, and checked baggage.

2 Comments on “Dictionaries and other book-like objects”

  1. “Information wants to be ambient.”
    That’s a very powerful quote! I’ve heard that “information wants to be free”, but your phrasing is a lovely qualification of that.
    I suppose thesauri and phone books are other examples of book-like objects. I think I’ll call them databases.

  2. “What other book-shaped objects are you publishing that aren’t really books? Would users be served better by a different shape?”
    This is a great question! Just about all technical writing is, traditionally, a book-shaped object that isn’t a book.

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