Comparison: Oxford Reference Online and Credo Reference

Reference Reviews

ISSN: 0950-4125

Article publication date: 9 August 2011


Bartlam Smith, L. (2011), "Comparison: Oxford Reference Online and Credo Reference", Reference Reviews, Vol. 25 No. 6.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Comparison: Oxford Reference Online and Credo Reference

Article Type: Comparison: Oxford Reference Online and Credo Reference From: Reference Reviews, Volume 25, Issue 6

“Bajillions of facts at your finger-tips” – so begins the latest publicity mailshot from Oxford Reference Online (and, helpfully, a link is provided to the definition of the “B” word, namely an extremely large number, first derivation in the 1990s). When asked to comparatively review Oxford Reference Online ( and Credo Reference (, which have to be two of the main online reference sources used today, my first reaction was: how do I choose?

As a reference librarian of (too?) many years standing, I, like my peers, was more than familiar with the huge output of Oxford Reference Online (RR 2003/4), an online version of some of the publications of Oxford University Press, which has a tradition of publishing reference works that dates back to 1884. Ditto Credo Reference, the publicity for which states that it offers easy access to trusted content from 530 titles provided by over 70 of the world’s leading academic publishers, powerful tools that help answer questions or find the perfect paper topic, and “seamless linking to other valuable and trusted information sources to speed your research”. These trusted information sources include JSTOR, Encyclopædia Britannica Online, and, indeed, Oxford Reference Online (provided the institution subscribing to Credo has access), a feature of particular use for those who may wish to pursue research at a level deeper than that available in standard reference sources.

So, how can a reference librarian choose between the two? Indeed, is it possible to make a choice? Can one sit on the fence, even though to do so may (metaphorically) pierce the reviewer in two?

In this review, I am attempting to avoid the appearance of comparisons or “tick box” exercises, saying that one is better than the other (or vice versa). Additionally, as a reference librarian, I am avoiding the issue of subscription rates, although such might well be a deciding factor with some, to say nothing of how these subscription-based resources compare with those free to use, such as Wikipedia and Google Translate.

A technical description of each would take up far too much word count for a review of this kind, so briefly: Oxford Reference Online (ORO), launched in 2002, brings together language and subject reference works from the Oxford University Press (OUP) “stable” into a single, cross-searchable database augmented by the Premium Collection, which features a range of fully-indexed, extensively linked, up-to-date, and cross-searchable dictionary, language reference, and subject reference works published by OUP, including access to titles in the Oxford Companions series.

I imagine that too many librarians – and users – ORO will have the edge due to its Oxford content, for as the banner on the welcome page proclaims, it’s the world’s most trusted reference collection. Credo, for its part, is based on a formidable list of works, including, but not limited to: Conspiracy Theories in American History, Encyclopedia of the Solar System (RR 2000/348), Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History, Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, and Oddbins Dictionary of Wine (RR 2005/46).

I have always found both ORO and Credo very easy to use and particularly valuable for locating information speedily, which, in this 24/7 age, most users expect from online resources, along with (for the most part) several choices of answer, even though these may only duplicate the same information. Still, it is far better than nothing and a vast improvement over pre-online days when users were forced to troll endlessly through reference works with little guarantee of success.

Some users of ORO have commented on its relative weakness as regards business-related titles; Credo fares better on this score, ranging from the A to Z of Corporate Responsibility to Wall Street Words, described as “an essential guide to the words spoken on ‘The Street’”.

To deal with specifics, let’s use quotations, the kind of topic for which online searching is such a boon. ORO offers access to the standard titles in the genre from the OUP stable (e.g., Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (RR 2010/154) and Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations (RR 2008/250)). Credo, in turn, offers quotation sources from (among others) Bloomsbury Quotations for Speeches and Respectfully Quoted, which emanates from the experience of the Library of Congress Congressional Research Service. Perhaps it is a case of “you pays your money and takes your choice”? (By the way, both ORO and Credo pass my litmus test for quotations by identifying Margaret Thatcher’s notorious: “There is no such thing as Society”).

Regarding illustrations, in theory Credo should score some points here (it does, after all, include the Bridgeman Art Library Archive). However, I found this somewhat disappointing. For example, I did a search for Antonio Gaudí, architect of exotic buildings in the Barcelona area a century ago. Type his name into the Image Search box and two hits are produced: one for an article on Art Nouveau (which has a reference to Gaudí in the text, but no image), the other to a good quality picture of his apartment block, La Pedrera or Casa Mila, located in Barcelona’s swish Passeig de Gràcia. There is nothing featuring his most famous work, the Church of the Sagrada Familia (Holy Family), also in Barcelona. Yet a search on Holy Family Barcelona produces two images of the edifice with its celebrated “wine bottle” towers – in both of which Gaudí is credited. ORO, for its part, was even more disappointing in my view; a search for Gaudí in the Maps & Illustrations sub-category produces nothing, and a general search only references Gaudí in the text. Perhaps it is rather unfair to use that search term, Gaudí being Catalan. But his oeuvre is highly visual.

Credo also scores with its Concept Map, a visually interactive map that displays how topics in Credo are interconnected. For instance, type a subject (say Antonio Gaudí) into the box and a variety of links appear, such as Art Nouveau and Architecture – Spain and Portugal. This could be very useful to researchers not familiar with a particular topic, or perhaps those seeking a degree of discovery by serendipity.

As to timelines, ORO fares particularly well here. In a review of the Cambridge Companion to Modern British Culture (RR 2011/195) I noted the inclusions – sometimes bizarre and also, in my opinion, surprising omissions – in the timeline included. Not so with ORO; you have an embarrassing choice of timelines: by countries (UK, USA, Australia) and themes (including Ancient World, Politics and Government, and War). This could provide ideal fodder for those setting questions for quizzes.

One useful point – well, perhaps not, but worth mentioning nonetheless – the “cut and paste” facility is particularly well done. When I so transferred a number of words in Spanish, a friend was most impressed: “You must have an excellent Spanish keyboard?” Not at all – mere cutting and pasting transfers all diacritics correctly – as with the impressive sounding Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475-1519), Spanish conquistador and reportedly the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. How do ORO and Credo deal with him? Well, the former gives fairly basic information, relying on titles from the Oxford stable, but it does include the Thomas Hardy quote: “At last he reached the summit, and a wide and novel prospect burst upon him with an effect almost like that of the Pacific upon Balboa’s gaze”. Credo, by contrast, picks up on the graphic illustration (from Theodore de Bry’s America, dutifully reproduced) of Balboa supervising Native Americans being thrown to the dogs – not specified here, but normally regarded as a “punishment” for their alleged sodomy. On this occasion Credo appears to score. But it would be invidious to single it out at the expense of ORO. In an ideal world, libraries will subscribe to both (as does the British Library, my employer from 1979-2011), providing users with the best of both worlds. In a less ideal world … can I sit on the fence?

Or maybe I can borrow the words attributed to the late Bernard Levin, journalist and opera lover, who, when asked which Mozart opera was his favourite, reportedly responded on the lines, “Whichever I saw last”! Sometimes I would go for Oxford Reference Online, on other occasions Credo would get my vote – depending on most recent usage. Librarians in less fortunate institutions will themselves have to make a judgment, bearing in mind their user base and the funding available.

As for me, I would certainly want to take both ORO and Credo to my (virtual) desert island.

Lawrence Bartlam SmithReference Specialist (Retired), Humanities Reference Service, British Library, London, UK