Some employers may buy dictionaries and style manuals for their team—or at least a copy for the team to share—but it’s more likely that your office is a BYOL: bring your own library.
Freelance editors, of course, have to buy all their own reference works.
In any case, you’ll find you can often spread out the costs as you go, using free or cheaper references at first and building your library over time.
Building a Reference Library
First and foremost, you must have access to the basics:
- A quality dictionary (think Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate or American Heritage)
- The style manual your employer or clients follow (e.g., The Chicago Manual of Style)
- A reputable usage guide (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage is my favorite)
You can save some money by purchasing used reference books. Look in used bookstores (online and offline), hit the library book sales, and check in with colleagues. A fellow editor may have the reference work you need, gathering dust on their bookshelf. They may be willing (or eager!) to part with it for a relatively small sum.
You can make your budget stretch by using free resources. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate and American Heritage Dictionary are both available for free online. That can give you the necessary cash for purchasing resources that aren’t available for free, such as the Dictionary of English Usage. You can purchase a print edition or subscription to one of the freebies later.
A free trial is good for the short term or for one-off projects that will finish during the trial period. But if you’ll use the resource again, be sure to purchase the resource after the trial. Publishing reference works is no more profitable than working as an editor. Pay the publisher so it can continue to create the reference works we need.
Check local libraries for reference works you don’t need as often. Look at neighboring libraries, too. Many libraries are part of a network, giving their patrons access to a wider variety of books through interlibrary loan.
Don’t forget college and university libraries. They’re more likely to have some of the resources you need. You don’t need borrowing privileges, either, if you look at the book in the library.
Have only one or two quick questions? Ask a fellow editor on one of the numerous editing discussion lists. While colleagues can’t be your personal research assistant, most of us are happy to take a moment to look something up for someone else. Hey, research is fun!
The key is to prioritize your library and work your way down the list as need and money allow. And when you’re stuck with how to afford a reference, ask colleagues how they managed it. Editors are generally a friendly bunch willing to lend a hand to our colleagues.