The OED has put online “the prefatory material that was published with the 125 fascicles, and the cumulated sections, parts, and volumes, in which the OED was originally issued between 1884 and 1928. These were collected in 1987 by Darrell R. Raymond of the University of Waterloo, and republished as Dispatches from the Front.” Raymond’s own preface says:
The Prefaces contain a wealth of historical and lexicographical information about the OED. Each Preface lists the editors, drafters, proofreaders, contributors, and scholars who participated in the fascicle’s production or the investigation of its sources. The magnitude of their labours is well illustrated by tables of statistical data comparing the fascicle to the corresponding sections of other dictionaries, including Johnson’s, Cassell’s, the Century, and Funk’s. Each Preface recounts the difficult or interesting problems that were solved, and outlines the general etymological character of words in that part of the alphabet. As well, the Prefaces contain a number of additions and corrections to the entries as they appear in the fascicles; these emendations were subsequently incorporated in the Supplement.
As in everything else, Murray’s Prefaces set the standard for the OED. While the other editors followed the general format he established, Murray’s Prefaces are always distinguishable. More than any other editor, Murray indulges in extended discussion of etymological and lexicographical curiosities, as for example with BE-, CROSS, ODD, PENNY and TAKE, and his explanation of why American was included while African was excluded (Vol. I). Too, Murray does not hesitate to remind us of the value of the historical method (H–HOD), the conjectures, errors and spurious words in existing works (CLO–CONSIGNER, PENNAGE–PLAT), or the hours that might be spent on the etymology of a word, with the only result being the notation ‘derivation unknown’ (Vol. I).
When I used to frequent a library that had the original fascicles, I took pleasure in browsing through the prefaces, and I am pleased that everyone can now do so easily online. (Via wood s lot, which today also links to a delightful translation of Ilpo Tiihonen’s poem “Kesäillan kevyt käsitteellisyys,” which plays with Finnish grammatical endings: “Ah summer evening, and its eveningness,/ its prodigious wonders and their bridgefulness/ when the nightunited seamlessness/ steals into one’s heart with restfulness…”)