A format from the past

A format from the past
The compact edition of the Dictionary of National Biography
27 October 2014

We often think of compression and storage in digital terms. As librarians, microfilm and microfiche also come to mind as very efficient means of storing information. However, microforms aren't necessarily limited to photographic film. It is also possible to print micro-sized text on paper and card. Though microfilm and microfiche became the standard for libraries as a preservation medium for reproducing texts, there have also been some some paper publications that contain very small, dense text that is difficult or impossible to read without magnification.

The standard version of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography reached 22 volumes, but in 1975 they also produced a compact edition that crammed it all into two volumes. There are a lot of advantages to replacing 22 volumes with just two. For librarians, it can save on shelf space in the stacks, and on the enquiries desk as a reference tool. For readers and researchers, it's a lot easier to fit on your desk than the normal edition, whether reading at the library or at home. The down-side of course is that unless you have exceptional vision you do need to use a magnifying glass.

As you can see, the copy that the National Library of Australia holds is a boxed set with a magnifying glass conveniently included.

Boxed set containing two volumes and one magnifying glass

This boxed set contains both volumes, and a magnifying glass.

Just perfect to fit on a bookshelf alongside the Oxford English Dictionary, the Encyclopedia Britannica, an atlas, and all of the other huge and heavy information resources that we used to need. Thank goodness for the weightless and invisible world of digital tools.

Dictionaries of biography are highly useful to reference librarians, and the ability to search, browse, and compare results quickly online enables us answer questions better and faster. However, there is something to be said for the weight of this compact edition, and the novelty of using a magnifying glass to read it. Makes you feel as though you are really delving into those famous lives and uncovering the past!

Using the magnifying glass to read the text

Using the magnifying glass to read the text.

You can access the current Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online in our reading rooms.