History of field guides

I did my PhD on the origin and development of field guides. Recently, I was interviewed on the excellent botanical podcast In Defense of Plants. I mention iNaturalist in the interview. Anyway, please have a listen! I hope you will enjoy knowing more about where technologies to identify organisms come from and their early evolution.


I’ll have to listen to the episode! Thanks for sharing.

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The history of field guides became a topic of interest to me a few years ago when I realized that we’re very much still in the middle of it. My parents are both ornithologists, so I’ve witnessed the changes over the years in dozens of field guides to the birds of North America (there really has been substantial improvement since the original Peterson Guide to the Birds). I’ve had the privilege of speaking to some of the authors of two recent field guides (the Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America, and the Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America) about their experiences making new field guides for groups which didn’t have any earlier field guides. And many groups of insects, spiders, fungi, and many others still lack comprehensive field guides. It’s a giant challenge. For example, the moths field guide covers 1,500 species of moths - an amazing accomplishment - out of 11,000 recognized in North America. And of course, it only covers the adults, not the caterpillars, cocoons, or eggs. There is SO. MUCH. WORK. still to be done.

Scharf’s interview mostly covers the very early history of field guides and their relationship to the technology of books - indexes, keys, cross-references, grouping things by similarity or taxonomy, how much it costs to include illustrations, and so on. Totally worth listening to if you’re interested in that sort of thing.


A few years ago, the Guardian published a list of the best non-fiction books (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/dec/31/the-100-best-nonfiction-books-of-all-time-the-full-list). I disagreed with a lot of the choices, and argued that the Peterson bird field guide was worthy of consideration, as it basically started a movement.


Great podcast overall and I really enjoyed that episode. Fascinating how the different components of what we know today as a field guide evolved based on scientific philosophy and even technology.

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Enjoyed this, thanks for sharing! @scharf
Especially liked the sound of the extra niche taxa/location field guides mentioned…

  • made me want to make a field guide myself :)

Thank you! It is nice to get feedback from people who not only know what field guides are, but who actually use them! For many years, I felt like I was operating in a vacuum.


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