Print and Digital Field Guides - Pros and Cons

I’ve never seen a drawing that could adequately capture the textures that are relevant here in a way that is useful for someone trying to ID an actual specimen.

I mentioned Falk’s bee field guide above, and the fact that he also maintains Flickr collections. This is because of precisely the trade-off being discussed here. The printed field guide has a key with line drawings and a couple of photos of most species. His Flickr pages include, in many cases, a dozen or so photos of each species, including both male and female specimens with close-up shots of key features. This richness of photos far exceeds anything that could realistically be included in a printed volume. And as someone who does not have access to actual physical specimens in an entomological collection, it is an incredible resource for grappling with how to see the relevant physical differences needed for ID.

I like paper references. I like the physicality of them, the experience of flipping through pages, and the fact that I can pull out a couple of volumes and open them up on the floor next to each other while I try to key out some of my photos, rather than having to constantly switch between tabs or windows on a small computer screen. I appreciate the cleanness and skill and elegance of line drawings and the design that goes into a well-thought-out field guide.

But the internet and the access to resources that it allows is nothing less than transformative. Among other things, it is not dependent on the privilege of being able to purchase paper field guides or access a well-stocked library. It is not dependent on whether the resources are available for a major (and costly) undertaking like producing a printed field guide for an obscure taxon or for a little-known and little-visited part of the world.

As I see it, the internet has removed a lot of barriers. The threshold for participation – both in creating and consuming content – is lower. And yes, it can also tend to encourage the proliferation of amateurish productions of dubious quality, but it also makes possible all sorts of resources that simply wouldn’t exist otherwise.


I agree. As much as I like physical books, including field guides, they are often expensive and I’m running out of shelf space to keep them. The internet provides resources that are more accessible, usually cost-free, and supplements what you can find in physical books.


Its definitelynot impossible to highlight multiple species on a page in photographs, though i agree that most guides dont seem to bother. Heres one does, this series of guides is pretty small too so i think they do a good job

EDIT: I do have one illustrated mushroom book but its more of a tabletop book than a field guide and doesn’t do multiple species per page. I do appreciate the clear detail you can get if you have a good artist though.


I don’t think it’s necessarily out of style to have physical field guides, I often use my Peterson field guide for birds before going online, I just enjoy doing it that way. Of course, then I supplement with online information. I love field guides, the first one I got was one that was just aimed at “nature of New England” and I flipped through it a ton, later on realizing I had learned a lot just by paging through it so much.

I don’t personally get a lot of vintage field guides because yes, I’m biased toward photos instead of drawings and for some things, the range maps would just be out of date. Nothing wrong with collecting them though, I love vintage books in general.

Now though I’m kinda tempted to look for some vintage guides featuring extinct animals. I read a book about the ivory-billed this year and am looking for something good about the Carolina parakeet.

One benefit of books over online guides is that you can make notes and sketches in the margin.


I’ve published two hard bound reference books. Why? Because more than half of what you read on the internet is wrong.

Books cost money. Books are out-of-date the moment they hit the printer.


Books work when the power is out.
Books that are peer-reviewed have a high level of accuracy.
Books that are well used are faster to locate information (if you know the book, you can flip within pages)
Books are sole-source for info- no need to check twenty sources to ensure it’s correct
Reference books are typically written by experts

It’s a fabulous time we live in that we have both books and internet. I can find info on the internet in minutes, whereas identifying the right book alone might take weeks. Internet info is instantaneous and up to date. But Internet info is often wrong. Terribly wrong. And wrong information can get repeated, sometimes intentionally and with ill intent, and then it becomes “fact” or “conventional wisdom.” Books are typically a dedication of immense effort by experts; they may have some level of bias or opinion, but generally it’s far more accurate than some comment by Sally Nobody or Junior Researcher.

Research books do go out of date- sort of. One field guide I have was written in 1949 and the taxonomy and systematics are very, very out of date and now incomplete. BUT it has information that is found nowhere else, not other books, not on the internet.

Internet-based information is best at the extremes- very generic, common knowledge stuff, and at the other end very specific and niche info. Somewhere in between books are better.


I own and use both. While I own many more paper field guides, the digital ones have a few real advantages. iBird had drawings, photos, maps, and text just like paper but it also has recorded calls and songs. Very handy if all you have is the sound a bird made.

The other advantage of digital media can be the volume of material you can carry around. I know many botanists that carry the PDF of the flora with them on a tablet or phone. Then they have keys and all the other info. Few people would carry that much weight into the woods.

Photos or drawings doesn’t matter as often as the quality of the images. Poor photos or poor drawings aren’t helpful.


There’s also the very mundane matter of cost. I’ve been through extended periods of my life when buying books of any kind was a luxury I just couldn’t justify. In the past, if you wanted to learn about nature, or more or less anything, books were the only option and that was tough. Now just about everyone has access to all the knowledge they could possibly need and more besides…I just wish it had been available to me before! The real problem now is to understand which are the best and most reliable sources, but that’s another matter.


The cost is seriously an absolute pain. There is an Amanita book I want ( this guy) that was just published in 2020 because sometimes I just like sitting down and reading through a guide to help familiarize me better with species. I just don’t have $60 to spare on it at the moment, unfortunately, so I’m just going to have to wait and hope that I can snag it at some point (and hope that it doesn’t go out of print or whatnot)

Sure, exists, and is a good resource, but its not the most user-friendly site and its very hard when I have to keep reloading webpages. I’m old-school I like browsing through pages


FWIW I updated the topic title and removed “vs” so that it was less about finding a winner and more about discussing the pros and cons of each format - I don’t think this has to be a zero sum discussion, and I’m sorry I sort of set it up that way.


There are really three genre: books, internet, and ebooks.

I have one reference book, for which there is no substitute in print or virtual, which weighs just under 6lbs. It has circled the globe four or five times, and since it’s irreplaceable it goes in my backpack not luggage. 6lbs is a big addition to carry around.

Internet, e.g., iNat, is shaky or unavailable in many places, particularly overseas. Meaning the online resources are effectively useless.

eBooks are great because they weigh nothing. However, many authors are not prone to publish via ebooks because of the cost invested, and bootlegging. The author of my 6lb book said he would not publish a soft copy.

In the end, having paid dearly for the book, I took photos of critical information so I didn’t have to carry the darned book. You can do the same with iNat and online resources, simply capture an image of the information you need on-hand.

Can you tell us what is your vital reference book, please?

As much information as there might be on the internet, nothing beats marking stuff in a physical book/paper. Although I rarely use physical material, I will never ever get rid of it. I still use it from time to time.

same here

My proudest “field drawing” was when I went without camera and guide on a lone desert walk and came across a bunch of new birds which I then line drew / badly sketched (and annotated with description). Later when I had access to a physical book I knew exactly what I had seen.


Nice thread and so many diverse replies. Will add my bits which are not comprehensive

Digital guides have undeniably changed access (ease, upgrades, options, alternatives, and customization). I love all this

There are some cons

  1. Too many links to click to get information that books have on one page
  2. Due to gross / macro levels sometimes similar items across the globe are confusable resulting in id mistakes and then it is easy to get lost and forget what one was searching for in the 1st place.
  3. On mobile phones (Small screens) not every guide (esp. pdf based ones) are nice to view
  4. On long trips power for devices becomes a question

Physical guides have some advantages

  1. Easy to make comparisons with similar species
  2. Easy to just browse and come across interesting items
  3. Most guides show size more reliably (and comparatively), while on
    on mobiles it is often difficult to compare
  4. Net based often need multiple links (one for range, another for specific taxonomy, size etc ) on a good field guide all such information are attempted to be in one place along with immediate comparisons with similar species.

Cons of Physical Guides

  1. No audio
  2. Heavy
  3. Get wet and battered
  4. Get outdated (but that itself is a story )
  5. Expensive (Cost to buy and costs of space and storage cost) this is also a limitation for digital guides

But two points I want to highlight from an economic justice perspective in low income communities

Physical guides are property / assets and could indicates “effort” and also they are a bit of a status symbol, while also boosting self image. One can show off physical books one has but who knows what is on electronic devices.
(I guess this is also one reason why so many people have real and faux bookshelves as online meeting backgrounds)

Also physical guides are much more accessible to all / more members of a family and community, while also being reliably secure in terms of content (known). Whereas the number of reliable electronic devices are limited, and access to internet based devices may be restricted due to cost or security concerns. And importantly there is less danger of people going down a rabbit hole of bad or dangerous information.

Some grammar and some sentence structure edits made.


If we ever lose the internet due to some global catastrophe, then printed materials will be all we have to rely on. Of course, we will have bigger problems to deal with than trying to ID some insect.


I’ve got a field guide to North American mammals by H.E. Anthony that was published in 1928. The only illustrations are some woodcut drawings and not very many, so it’s not the best illustrated guide. But it’s fun to see what taxa were recognized at the time, what names were used, and which ones have been changed and changed back in the last century or so.

I also have a zoology textbook that was printed in the 1880s. Darwin’s theory of evolution is only mentioned in a brief footnote on one page.


I mean, I was at a mushroom festival this last weekend and we could barely get internet access at the ID table - actually having ID books in hand was huge, both in trying to key out weird things but also just remembering the names of things. The internet doesn’t help when you’re out in the woods and can’t access it.


I seriously think that books have doubled in price since the years when I acquired most of mine.

The host of the YouTube channel “National Park Diaries” does that very well. Every episode, I see books that I either own, once owned, or have read.

Not necessarily. If the insect in question is on the food crop we are trying to grow, or if it has stung someone and we want to know how dangerous the venom is, or if it is the vector of a disease outbreak in the area, for example.

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Pre-Covid I never realised how important online meeting backgrounds were (in fact I don’t really remember an online zoom type meeting). Now I am trying to redesign a space so that it shows up nicely on a screen :sweat_smile: :no_mouth:

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