Library defines dictionary’s history

By Calvin H. Kim

Although it seems like Wikipedia is today’s most common reference source, the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) of the University of Chicago Library pays homage to the historical favorite in their latest exhibit, The Meaning of Dictionaries, which runs until July 6. The exhibit features a collection of historical dictionaries and related materials from the Library’s archives, meant to convey the history, evolution, and digital-age future of the dictionary.

The SCRC credits the original idea for the exhibit to U of C alumna Erin McKean (A.B. ’93) who serves as editor-in-chief of the New Oxford American Dictionary, according to exhibit curator and SCRC librarian Julia Gardner.

Visitors can browse an array of dictionaries published from several different time periods, including the first editions of the Dictionary of American English and the Dictionary of Americanisms as well as the third edition of Webster’s International Dictionary. The exhibit also features 19th-century slang dictionaries as well as dictionaries from Britain and the Commonwealth such as The Imperial Dictionary, The Dictionary of Prince Edward Island English, The Australian National Dictionary, and Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language.

A reference computer located near the SCRC entrance displays links to online versions of traditional dictionaries such as MSN Encarta and The Cambridge Dictionaries, user-generated online dictionaries such as Wikipedia’s sister project Wiktionary, and audio dictionaries with information on different English accents and dialects.

A May 14 crossword puzzle competition marked the first time that curators coordinated a student event together with an SCRC exhibition, according to Gardner.

With the Dictionary Society of North America scheduled to meet on the U of C campus from June 13–16, Gardner said the exhibit is an opportunity for the University to “emphasize the historical strengths of the U of C Press, which produced A Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles.” When asked what students should take away from this exhibition, Gardner said it is essential to recognize the relationship of dictionaries to “the culture or historical moment that produces them.”