Ever wondered what the Latin word for owl is? Or what links Fred Perry and Ping Pong? Maybe not, but you may be able to find the answers to these questions and many more at your fingertips in your local library. As areas for ideas, inspiration, imagination and information, public libraries are stocked full of not only books but online resources to help one and all find what they need. They are places to find a great story, research your family or local history, discover the origins of words, advice about writing a CV, or help with writing an essay on topics from the First World War to feminism in Jane Austen.
Saturday 9 February 2013 is National Libraries Day in the UK, and here at Oxford we publish a variety of online resources which you can find in many local libraries. To help with the celebrations we have asked a selection of our editors to write a few words about what they feel the resource they work on offers you, why they find it so fascinating, and what it can do when put to the test! And here is what they said…
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What can the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography offer librarians and their patrons? Three things, I’d say.
First, with life stories of 58,552 people who’ve shaped British history, there’s always someone new to meet: the first woman to swim the English Channel, perhaps? Or the last person convicted of witchcraft; the owner of Britain’s first curry house, the founder of the Mothers’ Union, the man who invented the football goal net. Plus 58,547 others — Julius Caesar to Jade Goody.
Second, there are new things to discover about some familiar figures. Did you know, for instance, that the cookery writer Mrs Beeton grew up in the stand of Epsom racecourse? That before tennis Fred Perry led the world at ping pong? That Roald Dahl kept 100 budgerigars and was a chocaholic, or that Dora Russell (wife of Bertrand) was the first woman to wear shorts in Britain?
Third (and perhaps most importantly) there’s the chance for some social networking — British history style. Traditionally, print dictionaries laid out their content A to Z. Online, the opportunities for new research — by local and family historians, or by teachers and students — are so much greater. Of course, the ODNB online still allows you to look up people ‘A to Z’. But it can also bring historical figures together in new ways, often for the first time — by dates, places, professions or religious affiliations. Simplest is date: for instance, it takes moments to gather the 92 men and women who were born on 9 February (National Libraries Day, 2013), including (appropriately) 15 who made their mark as writers, editors, lexicographers, and publishers.
But it’s with place searching that new discoveries really become possible, and a dictionary of the nation’s past becomes a resource for local and family history — from street level upwards. Which historical figures have connections to my county? Who once lived in my village, town, or city? Who went to my school or college? Who was baptized in this church or buried in that churchyard?
If you’d like to try for yourself, we’ve guides on using the ODNB for local history and family research, as well as bespoke pages to introduce historical figures by individual library authority (for example, Aberdeenshire or Sheffield. If you’re a librarian and would like one to promote historical figures near you, just let us know.
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For me, what makes the OED so fascinating is the fact it is one of a kind. What sets the OED apart is the attention it pays to each word’s history. I trained in historical linguistics, and when I look at an entry, I’m always drawn to the etymology first. Take the word owl. The Latin for owl is ulula, and the early modern German huhu, rather delightfully imitating the sound of the bird. Owl is also used for varieties of pigeon — not for the sound, but its distinctive ruff — and, apparently, moths and rays, for their barn-owl-like colouring. One such type of moth is more commonly known as the garden tiger moth, which leads me to look up tiger and find the theory that its name comes from the Avestan word for sharp or arrow… then I find myself distracted by tiger as a verb, meaning to prowl about like a tiger. Pretty much what I’m doing now, in fact, following the connections from entry to entry. It’s hard to resist. Like an owl to a flame, you might say.
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The new British citizenship test has been in the news lately — with commentators speculating that many people born and brought up in the UK would not be able to answer some of the questions on Britain’s history or culture. One of the wonderful things about living in Britain must surely be the access to free information found provided by the public library system, so I found myself wanting to remind all the lucky UK library users that they could find the answers they needed by logging onto Oxford Reference with their library cards. So, using a small sample of the questions featured in many newspapers, I decided to put Oxford Reference to the citizenship test — would it get the 75% necessary to prove itself well-versed in what it means to be British?
Searching for ‘Wiltshire monument’ across the 340 subject reference works on Oxford Reference, it correctly identifies Stonehenge as the multiple choice answer for the question on famous landmarks.
As I follow links from the information on Stonehenge to editorially recommended related content, I find results from OUP’s archaeology reference works which offer information on other ancient monument sites in Wiltshire like Avebury and Silbury Hill.
There are ten entries on St Andrew the patron Saint of Scotland, and I linger for a while to re-read his entry in one of the most colourful reference works on Oxford Reference, the Dictionary of Saints. The Dictionary of English Folklore quickly confirms that poppies are worn on Remembrance Day, and from that entry I follow a link to information about how poppies were used as a symbol of sleep or death on bedroom furniture and funerary architecture — my new fact for the day.
Other questions on the House of Commons and jury service take me to the extensive political and legal content on the site, and before long I am pleased to confirm that Oxford Reference has passed its citizenship test with flying colours.
I’ve been reminded along the way of the depth and richness of the content to be found on Oxford Reference covering all subject areas from Art to Zoology; the speed with which you can find a concise but authoritative answer to your question; the unexpected journeys you can follow as you investigate the links to related content around the site; and the pleasure in reading reference entries which have been written and vetted by experts.
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As a dictionary editor, I work with words on a daily basis, but I still can’t resist turning to Oxford Dictionaries Pro when I’m out of the office. It’s not just for those moments when I need to find out what a word means (although, contrary to what my friends and family seem to believe, I don’t actually know the definition of every word, so find myself looking them up all the time). I’m a particular fan of the thesaurus: why say idiot, after all, when you could use wazzock, clodpole, or mooncalf? Most importantly, I can access the site on the move. This helps to end those tricky grammar arguments in the pub — a few taps and I can confidently declare exactly when it’s acceptable to split an infinitive, whether we should say spelled or spelt, and if data centre should be hyphenated. And thus my reputation as an expert on all matters relating to language is maintained.
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The majority of UK public library authorities have subscribed to numerous Oxford resources. Your public library gives you access, free of charge within the library or from home to the world’s most trusted reference works. Learn more at our library resource centre and in this video.<
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