Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Oxford Puts Its Reference Works Online

Dave Swarbrick on the new Oxford University Press reference Web site.

What or who is ‘Ariadne’? She was, of course, the girl who fell in love with Theseus, who gave him the thread by which he found his way out of the labyrinth after killing the Minotaur. Her story was made into an opera by Strauss in which some of the greatest operatic stars have performed. But did you know that it has also inspired other composers like Handel, Dukas, Monteverdi, Haydn, and Musgrave, and many choreographers too? A Cretan dialect gave rise to the name, and St Ariadne was a Phrygian martyr. Ariadne is rarely a given name in Britain and American, but in France it appears as Arianne, and in Italy as Arianna. How long would it take to gather this information in a traditional reference library? I gleaned it in moments from Oxford Reference Online.

Oxford Reference Online at www.oxfordreference.com is the name of Oxford University Press’s new reference web-site. Beginning in March 2002 hundreds of Oxford’s language and subject reference dictionaries, famous Oxford Companions, and other reference works will become available on subscription. The site is expected to total well over 130 million words (equivalent to over 300 books) by the end of the decade. This could well make it the biggest general knowledge resource on the web.

On 20 March 2002 the first part of the new Oxford Reference Online web-site, Oxford Reference Online: The Core Collection, becomes available. Over 1.5 million entries, including dictionary definitions, facts, figures, people, places, sayings, and dates, from around 100 of Oxford’s acclaimed English and bilingual dictionaries, usage, quotations, and subject reference books have been combined to create ONE huge integrated knowledge resource. The service will cover over 20 subjects in the humanities, social sciences, science and medicine - from art and astronomy to sociology and zoology.

The result of a two-year collaborative project between OUP Oxford and OUP New York that has cost well over £1 million, Oxford Reference Online: The Core Collection is available on subscription to academic, corporate, and specialist libraries, schools, colleges, universities, businesses, and government offices around the world. Users will be able to access the service in their library, but members of subscribing public libraries will also be able to access it at home via library card authentication. In the UK, Oxford is working with JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) to provide access to Oxford Reference Online as the cornerstone of an electronic reference collection for the Further and Higher Education communities.

Why has Oxford taken this giant step in its online publishing strategy now at a time when few publishers are risking money in web-based projects? Part of the answer lies with the success of the Oxford English Dictionary Online. While there is no question of the yearly subscriptions to OED Online ever covering the £35 million/$55 million that the twenty-year project to revise the Oxford English Dictionary is costing, the gross revenue of over £1m has covered the cost of putting the work online. The service has also been a great hit with users world-wide. Very careful planning, cost-effective marketing, and close to 100% subscription renewals, has made the Oxford English Dictionary Online into a success story.

The other part of the answer lies with the growing needs of an increasingly computer-literate world population. The internet has changed the way we discover information. Oxford had massive reference assets. Put the two together and you have ORO, which we hope offers a new global standard for reference across the Internet.

A major benefit the web offers is the ability to update and expand the new service. Oxford’s extensive programme of new references and regular new editions of works on key subjects will bring up to 30 new and revised works to ‘The Core Collection’ between now and 2004, on subjects such as statistics, tourism, sport, archaeology, and business. Oxford Reference Online provides access to reference material that is both up to date and carefully prepared by leading scholars.

www.oxfordreference.com is the child of its customers. Nearly 10 rounds of market research were run over 24 months in the US and the UK. Scores of librarians, professionals, academics, students, teachers, school children, and general library users were involved at difference stages. Having established the nature of the product, hundreds more hours of one-to-one interviews, email research, workshops, and phone interviews followed. What sort of functionality was required? How should a quick search differ from advanced or browse? What could be added to Boolean to make advanced searching more flexible? Where should the search boxes be? How should the results be displayed, ranked, reordered or interrogated? How should different subjects be searched?

Out of the market research has emerged a product that is aggregated, but also modular, with every discipline having its own home page; where the identity and integrity of the original books is preserved - and yet can be pooled with others to allow for massive searches, the results of which could give you scores of different perspectives on the same subject.

Preparing Oxford Reference Online: The Core Collection, has been a huge task that has taken months of planning and execution. The first major hurdle was the digitisation of tens of millions of words, and the complex and extensive restructuring and tagging of the 1.5 million entries from the first 100 chosen texts. From ‘Aalenian’ in the Dictionary of Earth Sciences to ‘ZZ Ceti star’ in the Dictionary of Astronomy, material equivalent to over 60,000 book pages has been turned into more than more 500Mb of data, each part of it crafted to an elaborate tagging specification to enable high-quality searching. Semantico, the Brighton (UK) based online reference developer (www.semantico.com), has used state-of-the-art technology to complete the challenging and complex task of building Oxford Reference Online.

A wealth of functionality has been built into the site using innovative new approaches to manipulating complex data. But although ORO is technically very complex, users will never be aware of it. For them the majority of searches should be simple and direct, executed from the very first page. Users at all levels of expertise will be able to get more out of the wealth of knowledge available in Oxford texts than ever before. To help them, the design aims to be simple, elegant, and jargon-free with no ads, no fussy graphics, and no distractions. All key services are at, or near, the top level, and movement around the site is easy.

A big step forward is the new functionality in cross-referencing. Users are not restricted to cross-searching key words; they can highlight any word and click on the ‘Cross Reference’ icon to find more information. Instant definitions of complex vocabulary will be of huge value to any user but particularly to those for whom English is not their first language.

But by far the best way to find out what Oxford Reference Online can do is to go to the site and discover for yourself. www.oxfordreference.com has a guided tour, and if you are an institution, library or business, you can sign up for a free trial too. Happy searching!

Author Details

David Swarbrick,
Project Director,
Oxford Reference Online.