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Literary Scholarship and More From Oxford
Posted On September 17, 2012
In all the hurly-burly of information about business, politics, news, science, and technology, we can sometimes forget the quieter but enduring role of the humanities. Yet when all is said and done in academe to train people for future careers, could it be that a line from Shakespeare (“To thine own self be true”) or a John Donne sermon (“Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls”) could remain in the mind long after other learning has evaporated and help form, if not a career, a character? Authoritative sourcing is critical in humanities scholarship, and few institutions in the world are more respected than Oxford University. Now the Oxford University Press (OUP) has launched a new service, Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (OSEO). The initial launch taps into 171 volumes from the more than 2,000 produced. Embedded in the critical editions are some 12,000 texts covering the period 1485-1660. A freely available master index called the Oxford Index will be available as a discovery service on the open web. This month OUP also launched significantly re-engineered versions of the Oxford Handbooks Online and Oxford Reference.

The earliest of the scholarly editions offered in OSEO was written in 1901, with most of the rest coming well within the copyright protection period, at least for the commentary. Original texts draw on the Oxford English Texts series, as well as the Oxford Medieval Texts and Greek and Latin classics. This content includes works of poetry, drama, diaries, letters, philosophical treatises, etc. The initial tranche (definition: a portion or slice of a pool or whole; word origin: from the Old French, trencher, to cut) with its coverage of authors active between 1485 and 1660 will, of course, include William Shakespeare, as well as Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, and someone’s personal favorite, Shackerley Marmion. The authoritative original texts of about 12,000 works include 200 plays, some 7,000 poems, and more than 5,000 letters.

Sophie Goldsworthy, editorial director for academic and trade publishing in the U.K. and project director of OSEO, pointed out the need for reliable primary sources integrated with critical and expert background in humanities research, teaching, and learning. “With such a sheer volume of texts available online, it has never been more important than it is now to help scholars and students. … Over the past century and more, Oxford has invested in the development of an unrivalled programme of scholarly editions across the humanities. OSEO now takes these core, authoritative texts down from the library shelf, unlocks their features to make them fully accessible to all kinds of users, and makes them discoverable online.” Several members of the OSEO Editorial Board, themselves scholars in the field, have written a series of short essays available on the site that not only inform readers on OSEO’s mission and development but also on how it can be used and applied in education.

On a personal note, it is quite rare for a journalist covering the digital database service to see anything on sites but meticulous instructions or self-congratulatory commercial hype. The humanities—at least as practiced at Oxford—seem to follow a more contemplative style of promotion. Wouldst it be too un-British to call it “classy”?

Each scholarly edition will cover related works in English literature, religion, philosophy, and history. All of the editions have been edited by established scholars and received extensive peer review. The digital versions of the print editions will offer individual downloadable PDF pages. OSEO will also cover the editor’s record of important textual variations, interpretative and explanatory notes, situated alongside the text, and extensive introductions. Readers can view an author’s works and texts in aggregate. The browse option lets readers search by author, work, or specific print edition, while the advanced search uses the XML format to do very focused searches for precise types of content (e.g., stage directions in plays). Extensive hyperlinking supports easy navigation for scholars. Chronological divisions let readers track textual history or even the way a single word’s use has changed over time. Researchers can also integrate material from scholarly editions with other materials and research processes. Personalization options let users save and bookmark content.

For librarians subscribing to or purchasing OSEO (which comes with a Buy the Book button for print-bound acquisitions), the service provides for multiple access, including remotely. It also includes MARC records at no extra charge, COUNTER-compliant usage statistics for reporting down to book level, DOIs to allow direct referencing in reading lists, customer and technical support, and flexible purchase models.

And apparently, this is just the beginning. Over the next 4 or 5 years, OUP will add the other scholarly editions covering other chronological periods each year. Periods on schedule, according to Goldworthy, are the Restoration era next year, then the Enlightenment, Romantic poets, Victorian literature, and 20th century literature and history. OUP also plans to circle back and pick up the classic Greek and Latin within the Oxford Classical Texts series, the medieval with the Oxford Medieval Texts series, and history. While they originally planned to do only one tranche a year, Goldworthy told us they now plan to speed up the process. They are also commissioning books to fill gaps in existing groupings and to cover modern literature.

So how big will OSEO get when complete? Goldsworthy could only conjecture, but if 171 scholarly editions contained more than 12,000 original texts and there are somewhere more than 2,000 scholarly edition volumes in existence now—you do the math.

As to the overall future, in chatting with Goldsworthy, I suggested how appropriate social networks would be for the eternal conversations of scholars. She said it sounded like a good idea. She also pointed out that while they are concentrating now on Oxford content only, they already offer their platforms to other university presses in University Press Scholarship Online (a platform developed by iFactory in Boston, Mass., by the way).

More from Oxford

Re-launching sometime in October is the Oxford Handbooks Online: Scholarly Research Reviews (ORR). The re-launch represents a move from ebooks to an online article-delivery model. The content will now publish individual chapters online before they appear in print as well as online-only articles on emerging research areas. It will also update versions of existing articles online, making the online edition the most authoritative and complete for this content. Coverage expanded from four disciplines—business and management, political science, philosophy, and religion—to 14, adding archaeology, classics, criminology, economics, history, law, linguistics, literature, music, and psychology. Medical coverage continues in Oxford Medical Handbooks Online.

Launching on Sept. 19, 2012, Oxford Reference (OR) has also been redeveloped as the home of Oxford’s reference publishing, integrating in a collection of more than 1.7 million entries the Oxford Quick Reference and the Oxford Reference Library. The Quick Reference section contains more than 125 core academic dictionaries allowing users to quickly check facts and key information about a concept, person, term, subjects, or language. The Oxford Reference Library contains more than 180 in-depth and specialist titles from Oxford’s collection of encyclopedias and companions. Oxford Reference allows users to build their own online reference library collections. One can easily cross-search concise definitions through to in-depth articles. The preview site is available now at

But what is available free in this free-for-all world? The Oxford Index is a free discovery service that lets users search across Oxford’s digital academic content and find related content across all their online sites. The Oxford Index offers pages where users can, according to Goldworthy, “see all an author’s works listed, a list of scholarly editions cited, biographical information from the Dictionary of National Biography, and a list of writings on the author, but if they have no subscription access, they can go no further.” Goldworthy did point out that individuals can subscribe to OSEO for 25£ for 3 months or 75£ for a year. And, of course, they still offer print. For the moribund issues, the new system will support print-on-demand.

And there’s some good news for fact-checkers and reference librarians. Goldworthy added, “You asked if there was a tranche of Oxford Reference that’s going to be free, or is it all paid content? Oxford Reference offers a wealth of easily discoverable, freely available content including over 300,000 new free Overview pages, providing a definition for every unique term plus helpful onward navigation, 270 free Timelines containing links to over 9,000 free reference entries, a new, free, online-only Quotations title, and regularly published topical theme articles.”

Speaking of quotes, was it, “And it must follow as the night the day, that thou canst then be false to no man” or “thou canst not then be false to any man”? Well, we now know whom to ask.

Barbara Quint was senior editor of Online Searcher, co-editor of The Information Advisor’s Guide to Internet Research, and a columnist for Information Today.

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