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U. of I. librarian launches comprehensive Web database of field guides

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor
217-333-2177; andreal@illinois.edu

Diane Schmidt
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Diane Schmidt, the biology librarian at the U. of I. Library, has built and launched the most complete database of field guides to date. “The new database is getting at least 5,000 hits per month,” Schmidt said.

1/29/2008

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Journeying to Johannesburg to survey bat colonies? To Kenya to count monkeys? To Tasmania to track devils Down Under? What about Roman ruins in Britain? Snowflakes in North America?

No worries, there’s a field guide for you, in fact, an entire digital database of weird and wacky – but mostly practical – field guides to all matter of, well, matter. And that includes French cheese, “purposeful” knots and English churchyard lichens.

Diane Schmidt, the biology librarian at the University of Illinois Library, has built and launched the most complete database of field guides to date. The International Field Guides Web Site merges Schmidt’s own book, “A Guide to Field Guides: Identifying the Natural History of North America” (Libraries Unlimited, 1999), and its companion Web site, International Field Guides, plus 2,000 new titles.

“After the publisher returned copyright to the book, I decided to combine the two products and create a searchable database of field guides for plants, animals and other objects in North America and around the world,” Schmidt said, adding that she personally examined most of the guides in the database. This means she probably has seen “more field guides than anyone else in the world.”

“There are other limited lists of field guides, for example, shore plants and animals of the Pacific Northwest or the best guides for butterflies in the Eastern United States, but none that come close to this database in terms of scope and comprehensiveness,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt said that while her book sold well “for such a specialized publication,” the associated International Field Guides Web site got thousands of hits a month, “so going Web-only has really expanded the availability of the data.”

“The new database is getting at least 5,000 hits per month,” Schmidt said.

The new and enlarged database has a “book bag” feature that allows users to download information from items they select, which includes the title, author, date and place of publication, a description of the book, often the ISBN number and approximate cost, plus the region the book focuses on. The site offers more than 5,000 records to date.

The field guides are classified by type of organism and region covered. Eighteen categories are represented: from animals and edible plants, to flora and fauna, and miscellaneous – the latter category a most amusing read. Each field guide is described with the type of illustrations, the presence of keys – important for identifying difficult groups, and range maps and “other useful details that help users decide which field guide to use.”

Still, the site has one limitation, Schmidt said: You can’t link to the actual book – either at a library or a bookstore.

“That’s an upgrade that I’d really like to make,” she said.

Schmidt believes that amateurs and researchers will find the database useful.

“I can imagine a range of scenarios,” she said. “An enthusiastic birder wants to find out what bird field guides are available for Bali, where she’s going for a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Or, an ornithologist who knows all about the birds of Guatemala might be looking for a comprehensive guide to the birds of Venezuela, since many of them are different. Or, an Illinois high school student wants a guide to the mammals he sees outside his back door.”

What were Schmidt’s criteria for inclusion in the database?

“The basic criterion is that they must be guides to the identification of plants, animals or other mostly natural objects. And they must be designed to be taken out into the field, so they need to be small and portable.

“Aside from that, I try to discover field guides for all groups of organisms and all regions of the world, and in any language. The emphasis is on books that are still in print, but I’ll include older books, too. While it’s impossible to include each and every field guide from around the world, that’s my ultimate goal,” she said.

Schmidt said she first started working on a list of field guides about 16 years ago and began the new database in 2005. When she went on sabbatical in the fall of 2006, she worked on the database exclusively, visiting more than 75 libraries and bookstores over the course of six months.

Schmidt is still adding entries to her database. Even during a conference she attended in late January, she took free time to visit libraries and bookstores on the hunt for new titles. Since last summer, she had added 200 guides.

Some regions seem more heavily represented than others, she conceded.

The reason: “People in some regions, especially the former British Commonwealth countries like Australia, are more ‘into’ amateur natural history than people in countries like Russia or China,” she said. “And popular ecotourist spots like Costa Rica have more field guides than countries where the plants and animals haven’t been studied as much.”

Language also can be a problem, she said.

“Libraries in the U.S. don’t collect as many books in non-Roman alphabets as they do in English, and I rely on library collections for a lot of the information on field guides.”

Even if you aren’t going anywhere, just browsing the database is a trip, since so many of the items fall into the “Who knew?” category. As in, who knew this was a field of close observation, even study?

Sure, Aboriginal rock engravings in Australia are one thing – obvious topics for field guides. So are stone walls in the Eastern United States, seashells of the Arabian Gulf and sea slugs in Hong Kong. And, farther afield, guides to the names of clouds and “Galaxies and Other Deep Sky Objects” make perfect sense.

A field guide to the stray shopping carts of Eastern North America, on the other hand, must be a whole new realm of nearly unexplored territory.