Oxford Reference: A new look of reference

Oxford University Press (OUP) launched a new reference platform this past September that combines the content of two existing OUP resources (available as separate entities until December 12th, 2012): Oxford Reference Online (ORO) and Oxford Digital Reference Shelf (ORDS). This launch of a new product simply called Oxford Reference coincides with OUP’s 80th anniversary of the first publication of The Oxford Companion to English Literature, prompting OUP to celebrate eight decades of subject reference publishing on its web site.

Taking a closer look at its features and overall presentation of content (and the very name of the product), OUP’s new reference platform speaks volumes about the publisher’s perception of what reference publishing needs to be and where it needs to go from here.

What Oxford Reference is

For those still wrapping their heads around what Oxford Reference (OR) entails and how the transition from ORO and ODRS is handled, two places for librarians to start the research are the site’s About and FAQ pages. In addition, a useful (and sleek) video is available on YouTube and embedded on the product’s web site.

In a nutshell, OR is made up of two fully integrated and cross-searchable collections (linked to the Oxford Index): Oxford Quick Reference is all about quickly checking a fact or finding key information about a concept, person, or term; Oxford Reference Library is all about in-depth research and specialist content. Plus, a wealth of free content supplements the paid content. This means that researchers can come to OR without paid access from anywhere (or with limited title access) to start their inquiry. Included are:

  • over two million entries
  • 25 different subject areas
  • a variety of English and American dictionaries
  • bilingual dictionaries in French, German, Spanish, and Italian
  • over 18,000 illustrations, including color photographs, maps, tables, and more
  • over 300,000 Overview pages
  • over 275 free timelines linking some 9000 key historical events
  • thousands of web links—vetted by Oxford Editorial Staff

What Oxford Reference means

Much about this product is big, but it’s the little things that caught my attention. Among them: Oxford’s decision to stick to reference, the word itself, to continue defining research, both basic (“quick reference”) and in-depth (“reference library”). At a time when various content producers are flirting with other terms to identify their products as research tools, OUP is sticking to the word that, as I’ve argued, is a classic that has stood the test of time the way other terms used in publishing and libraries haven’t (or shouldn’t). Nonfiction is a good example.

OUP continues to keep up with technological advances (as evident in all of OUP’s electronic products), but it is also setting its own standards for what its research tools should do. At their best, it seems, electronic research tools should take us on a journey of both planned and surendipitious discovery. They should answer questions quickly and then open up doors to further exploration. They should do the very thing that reference print lovers have argued all along that they couldn’t: allow for meaningful yet spontaneous discovery.

Very similar to Oxford Scholarship Online (OUP’s monograph platform), OR interface is clean and accessible, but it’s not overly simplistic. OR is all about re-defining use of a reference product as a journey of layered discovery. At its core, it’s not about simple research as much as it is about gratifying research. Users and librarians frustrated with the plethora of loosely “related terms” that inundate many electronic products will welcome their absence here.  They will, however, appreciate a new approach to narrowing their searches (by “reference type,” “subject,” and “content set”).

In a product like OR, reference and all that it stands for does not need to be re-invented, explained, or masked in front of the user. In a way, the user is expected to conform to all that reference is: both quick information (available for free) and deep research (available for purchase).  But it is up to the user to decide how far he or she wants to be taken on this journey. The refreshing twist here is that this journey need not start at the library or come at a price, but it leads to the library (or the individual subscriber).

More facts about Oxford Reference

  • Oxford Quick Reference (OQR) collection is updated monthly; three major updates a year add new titles and editions to the collection.
  • OQR draws content from over 120 core subject, language, and quotations dictionaries; see a complete list of titles here.
  • The majority of titles that were available in Oxford Reference Online Premium (OROP) make up the Oxford Quick Reference.
  • A small proportion of titles have moved across to sit in the Oxford Reference Library. Subscribers to OROP (and Western Civilization and Literature Collections) will continue to have access to the same content.
  • ORDS titles constitute a large portion of the Oxford Reference Library.
  • Oxford Reference Library titles are static and will not be updated; new editions will be published for many titles. See a complete list of titles here.
  • All previously purchased ORDS titles can be accessed through the new Oxford Reference platform providing improved functionality and design.
  • Titles within the Oxford Reference Library can be purchased on a title by title basis allowing institutions the flexibility to build their own online reference library.

How to subscribe

Oxford Reference is available to both institutions and individuals.

Oxford Quick Reference

  • Institutions:  Collection available by annual subscription, and as an annual frozen collection to purchase.
  • Individuals:  To subscribe online and gain instant access, go here.

Oxford Reference Library

  • Institutions: Available to purchase in perpetuity on a title-by-title basis


Mirela Roncevic is an independent content developer, writer, and researcher. She contritues articles and stories to NSR on reference and digital publishing and content development. Reference publishers and content aggregators may send all PR materials directly to Mirela at mirela@mirelaroncevic.com.

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