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Writing on the wall?

Pauline McLean | 17:44 UK time, Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Time is running out for the 27 staff based in the Edinburgh Headquarters of Chamber Harrap, which publishes the Chambers Dictionary.

Despite a high profile petition, it's likely they'll all be issued with redundancy notices, with the Chambers side of the business transferring to London and the Harrap operation, which publishes foreign language reference books, transferring to Paris.

There are a lot of reasons to rue the closure - not least the fact that it brings to an abrupt end 200 years of publishing history.

Since William and Robert Chambers first established their dictionary in the capital in 1867, it's been a pillar of publishing, first for Victorians in search of a little self improvement, latterly as the best reference point for ambitious crossword and Scrabble enthusiasts.

Part of its appeal is the fact it's a no nonsense, Scottish institution which published everything you required in one volume.

Of course, reference publishing has been in trouble for decades, and not just because of the decline in sales or the increasing appeal of online editions.

But many campaigners believe that's a simplistic argument - and if it's the case, how can they justify moving the work elsewhere? Where's the longer term outlook?

It's ironic given Edinburgh's status as UNESCO's first city of literature, that one of its most historic publishing connections is being broken - although not without a fight as politicians and writers alike have taken up the cause. An online petition has attracted hundreds of signatures.

Ironic too that it's only a matter of months since MEP David Martin called on the dictionary to be given the same EC protection as Arbroath Smokies, champagne and Black Forest Ham.

We can all laugh, but in the faceless world of global publishing, that little bit of old fashioned Scottish reference is unique and important.
It's not just about words - or online versus hard copies. It's not about luddites versus a more high-tech form of reference.

It's about a historic reference point - dating back to the Scottish Enlightenment - which once lost - won't be easily restored.

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