Reviews: The Evaluation of Dictionaries

by Moya K. Mason


Reference librarians have an integral role to play in the development of library collections, and have the responsibility to make sure that they are buying the best information sources available, especially m these times of shrinking budgets. This is particularly necessary with the explosion that has taken place in the publishing world, and the vast array of choices that are currently available to librarians. Deciding what to buy, if the materials will stand the test of time and be used, and how much to spend, are important considerations for library staff. As William Katz reminds us, nineteenth century librarians advocated, "the right book for the right reader at the right time," which is still the major challenge today (Katz 1987,9). Of course, a major part of this is knowing who your users are and what their needs will be in the future.

In an academic setting, librarians must keep in mind that the information materials must support and enhance the courses and programs that are being offered in the institution, and consider the needs of the faculty members. Ultimately, what is purchased has a big impact on the overall collection, and consequences for the reputation of the university; it is something that graduate students and prospective faculty consider when deciding if being associated with the institution is worthwhile. The same is true of public libraries it is much better to have a reputation for a solid, up to date collection of materials for the public to use.

One way that reference librarians select current titles is by reading reviews found in scholarly or technical journals, however, knowing the components of a good review is also a part of the process. To evaluate book reviews is an important aspect of purchasing materials, so librarians must use a kind of checklist as they scan the literature in search of appropriate recommendations or denunciations for prospective acquisitions. hi other words, collection development librarians must be able to critique literary reviews if they are involved with selecting current titles, so it is good to get some practice. In this case, an evaluation of reviews for the Oxford Classical Dictionary is the task at hand. The citation for the tool is as follows:

Hornblower, Simon, and Antony Spawforth, eds. 1996. Oxford Classical Dictionary. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Evaluating the Reviews

Two reviews have been found for the dictionary, the first one is from the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, an electronic Journal which is an indispensable publication for both educators and librarians who must select materials for the Classics. Bryn Mawr Classical Review began in 1990 when two professors from Bryn Mawr College realized that there was a need for a book review journal in Classics which would give concise, timely reports of new work, in a field where reviews were so long delayed, they were worthless. The key thing to remember about this Journal is that it has only the most prestigious educators in the field writing the reviews, and as Katz has said, where the best reviews are for the subject area and who is writing them, is considered very important (Katz 1987,68). A world renowned German classicist named Markus Sehlmeyer has written the first review for the third edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary, and it is a very interesting and informative commentary.

The review begins with an accurate bibliographic citation, and a description of its 1640 page, 6250 article scope format, 780 of which are new, as the subject dictionary has increased its size by thirty percent. Most of the entries are concise, informative, and have fine bibliographies to consult for further reading. As far as the qualifications of the authors and editors, although they are not explicitly stated, librarians who are at all familiar with the field of Classics would be aware that Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, the editors, are well known in the field, and contributing authors such as E. Badian, J. Scheid, and B. Zimmermann are experts in the area of antiquity. In addition, there is general consensus that most everything released by the Oxford University Press, along with most other university presses, is considered of excellent quality.

Sehlmeyer spends quite a bit of time comparing the monograph with both its previous editions, and to a German contribution (Der Neue Pauly) to the area of classical dictionaries. He goes into great detail explaining, when compared with the 1970 edition, the dictionary is generally an improved information source, containing a much wider range of topics, including new articles on women's studies, linguistics, and homosexuality, and more entries by classical authors such as Agathocles of Cyzicus. Unfortunately, as the reviewer does point out, many of the modernized articles from the two previous editions (1948/1970), have not been updated, and therefore, do not include the latest or most current archeological and bibliographical contributions in the field, but similarly, the dictionary rarely makes mistakes. The other important detail is that the work does not, nor has ever had an index, however, the editors have inserted quite a good system of cross references that move the reader smoothly through the dictionary, and provide ease of use by using pointers to related articles.

His comparisons with Der Neue Pauly are helpful, but as the publication is fifteen volumes in length, as compared with the one volume format of the Oxford edition, and more of an encyclopedia, rather than subject specific dictionary, it is a questionable endeavour. It only stands to reason that the German set would have similar, but longer and more in-depth articles for the interested person to read. Another good indication that someone is comparing apples with oranges is a wide differentiation in price: the OCD is priced at $99.95, while the DNP is approximately $2300.00, although interestingly, both lexica rely on many of the same authors and advisors for their contributions. Overall, Sehlmeyer asserts that the third edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary is what its editors and publisher had hoped it would be, and that is, an updated and revised volume which is still considered the best one volume dictionary on antiquity that is available in the marketplace, along with the fact that there really is nothing like it for the price. This critic believes the review written by Dr. Sehlmeyer to be a useful tool for the librarian who must make a purchase in this subject area.

The Booklist Review

The second review for the 0xford Classical Dictionary has been provided by the journal Booklist, accessed off the online Amazon book site, and contains complete bibliographic information in the very concise and easy to read review of the dictionary. It is a much shorter review, but it has information as to the wider scope of the volume, and says that there is evidence of currency, extensive revisions, and updated bibliographies, with comparisons made in general terms to previous editions. Booklist also adds additional information on how contributors have written many fewer descriptions requiring knowledge of ancient languages, and includes information concerning the use of cross references instead of a general index. In addition, it is noted that since academia has seen an increase in the interest of classical disciplines, along with new discoveries and theories, there was a great need to have this dictionary revised and expanded in scope. The editors have successfully completed the undertaking they set out to accomplish by compiling a quality contribution to the lexicon of reference books, which the review states is a good addition to any school, academic, or public library.

The Booklist review does point out that certain entries may be confusing and that some cross references end up in blind references, but overall, the format is user friendly and is quite well organized. One omission of this review is that there is no specific mention of the qualifications of the contributors or editors, but there is a statement which asserts the authority and unrivalled position that this dictionary has enjoyed since its first edition in 1948. To this reader that is a clear indication that Oxford University Press has historically been considered a leader in the transmission of information from many different disciplines.


Although neither review mentions the physical makeup of the volume, nor its lack of illustrations, both must be considered quality commentaries that librarians could draw upon when making collection development decisions. However, the Oxford Classical Dictionary is a reference tool considered a mainstay in most reputable libraries, and an item that would be automatically ordered on the basis of its historical authority and the reputation of its publisher. Of course, that cannot be said of all ready reference sources, and reviews are crucial components of the collection development process.

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Review for the Oxford Classical Dictionary. 1997. Booklist 23:11 12.

Katz, William A. 1987. Introduction to Reference Work. New York: McGraw Hill Book Company.

Sehlmeyer, Markus. 1997. Review of Oxford Classical Dictionary. Bryn Mawr Classical Review.

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