Oxford Bibliographies Online: More Rant Than Review

September 1, 2010

Oxford has begun to publish a product called Oxford Bibliographies Online.  These are lengthy annotated bibliographies, written by scholars, on various topics.  There are Subjects (15 available the first year, including Classics), each with ca. 50 topic entries (Classics has 51, from Aeschylus to Virgil).  Topics have logical subdivisions; Virgil, by Elaine Fantham and Emily Fairey, for example, has Introduction, Life, Reference Works, Bibliography, Eclogues (Texts, Translations, Scholarship), Georgics (ditto), Aeneid (ditto plus Stylistic Analysis, Myth Religion and Prophecy, Literary and Historical Context), and Reception (over different periods.)

I think this is a wonderful idea;  OBO’s editor describes it as a response to the problem of “too much information” in the digital age, and a scholarly pathfinder more valuable than a search engine. Print annotated bibliographies have long existed; my resource reviews on this blog are incredibly indebted to Fred W. Jenkins’
Classical Studies: A Guide to the Reference Literature, a published annotated bibliography.  The OBO  is “born digital” and seems to take good advantage of that fact, making use of OpenURL technology and links out to web sources (including Worldcat.org).  The topics are peer-reviewed and scheduled to be updated and revised quarterly.

I’m a little troubled by the economics of this product, however.  I gather (an acquaintance knows someone who wrote a topic treatment) that the authors are minimally compensated for their work, as with most academic publications.  I think in the case I heard about, the author of a bibliography section received several hundred dollars’ worth of OUP books, plus of course the prestige.  OUP is charging a fair amount for the product, of course – from Laguardia (link below):

There are two options for acquiring OBO: by subscription or by perpetual access. Subscriptions are based on institution size and range from $395 per subject for the smallest institutions to $995 for the largest. The more subjects a library subscribes to, the more you save (from five percent up to 20 percent). Perpetual Access is initially provided at a price that includes the first three years of updates (the period of exponential planned growth for the file, with subsequent years providing updates rather than major growth). After the first three years, there will be a hosting and updating fee, while customers not wanting to pay for hosting and updating have the option of owning the content (in some format) that they can keep and self-host, depending upon upgrades and developments in technology. Perpetual access pricing ranges from $3,160 per subject to the smallest institutions to $7,960 to the largest institutions. The more subjects a library “buys,” the more it saves via discounts.

Oxford is running an “inaugural year” special that entitles libraries to discounts on top of the multiple subject savings. For libraries that purchase all modules this year (15 different subjects), the publisher is offering an exceptional deal; call your Oxford reps for details.

There are also individual subscriptions available, and free 30-day trials available for those considering a purchase.  Right now UGA, like many academic libraries, is in no position to spend $1000 a year for access to 50 bibliographic essays in Classics, much less a greater amount for “perpetual access.”  Most libraries are currently trying hard to cut as few resources as possible in the face of budget cuts and continuing journal price inflation.

So here’s my heresy – why couldn’t annotated bibliographies for subjects be written by faculty (or librarians, or even graduate students writing PhDs who spend years on literature reviews) and hosted in a freely accessible manner on the web – say, as part of Perseus, for example?  Or a specially-created Classics Annotated Bibliography Wiki?  Or a university or library web site?  Or even – horrors – added into existing Wikipedia entries on the topic! (The last would be the best way to reach the masses – interested amateurs and undergraduates – and direct them into scholarly resources, since Wikipedia is generally the number one result on any Google search and, whether we like it or not, the first place students go to find information.  The Virgil article at Wikipedia already has the basic structure of the Virgil topic in OBO, though it is rather skimpy on the scholarly bibliography.)

Oxford is certainly adding value to the work of the scholars who write the content for the OBO.  There is significant organizational work (anyone who has edited a scholarly journal knows all about the cat-herding involved) and technical work; I imagine the academics who edit the Subjects do most of the editorial work, and the peer reviewers are minimally compensated. The product looks good and should be easy to use (we haven’t requested a trial).  But is Oxford adding value to the tune of $1000 per subject per year?  My beloved Jenkins cost me about $40, in paperback (I bought a personal copy), and I don’t have to pay for it annually.

Reviews of OBO include:

Please link me to further reviews in comments if you know of any.


  1. I’m totally with you on this, it’s not heresy, it’s sense.

    Shall we take the bull by the horns and set up a Classics Annotated Bibliography Wiki?


  2. […] 1, 2010 by classicslibrarian In the beginning, I posted the following to my professional blog: Oxford Bibliographies Online: More Rant Than Review.  It included the following: So here’s my heresy – why couldn’t annotated bibliographies for […]

  3. […] the beginning, I posted to my professional blog: Oxford Bibliographies Online: More Rant Than Review.  It included the following: So here’s my heresy – why couldn’t annotated bibliographies for […]

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