Field guides, past and future

by Cam Webb, Research Associate
June 9, 2011

Field guides, past and future

Finding the name for a tree in the Bornean forest is a pleasurable challenge. There is no guidebook to the tree species of Borneo, and we don’t even have a comprehensive checklist (an estimate of the number of known species is 5,000, but it is likely there are many more still undescribed). Instead of turning to a single resource, those seeking to learn the trees of Borneo must accumulate knowledge from a number of different sources. My favorites include:

The best guide to tropical Asian trees

A recent addition, and without doubt the most beautiful and useful single reference, is Jim LaFrankie’s Trees of Tropical Asia. This is a nearly comprehensive account of the genera (ca. 800) of trees in the whole of Southeast Asia, complete with excellent photographs of bark, leaves, flowers, or fruits for most genera. It is a labor of love, having taken Jim many years to complete, and represents the distillation of a vast amount of literature and personal experience (most of the photos were taken by Jim himself). Besides being an invaluable reference, it is very readable, full of significant stories and observations. It reminds me of an up-to-date rendition of some classic nineteenth century natural history work. It was the only (paper) book we took on our expedition. I dipped into it nearly every day, over my morning cup of coffee, seeking insight into some tree we had encountered. Our local team members (particularly Pak Manto) also treasured it; while they could not read the English, the images are so abundant and well-annotated that they were able to teach themselves the scientific name for many taxa.

As an author on a slowly-progressing field guide to the genera of Bornean trees, I often think about the advantages of different formats for field guides. Electronic books have many advantages over paper books: portability, ease of copying (if that is the authors’ intention), durability, etc. However, the physical layers between the information and the reader (i.e., the screen and buttons) still limit the quality of experience of a digital book. Using a paper field guide is perhaps the most complex data-access task we perform: frequent use of the index and table of contents, flipping back and forth between figures and text, marking several sections with fingers to compare similar taxa. Our spatial memories are also engaged with a physical book, enabling us to remember the physical location of taxa pages, thus speeding up the use of the guide once we have used it a bit.

I have enjoyed using two e-book readers: the Amazon Kindle and the iRiver Cover Story, but the slow refresh rate of e-ink really limits these gizmos to reading a document from start to finish; flipping back and forth is simply too frustrating. Well-designed HTML web-pages (with cross-linking, a good table-of-contents, and an index) can replicate some of the accessibility of a paper book, but until recently, the only option to view them was to carry a laptop around in the field. Smartphones are wonderfully powerful, and can display complex webpages accurately (and are owned by a large proportion of Indonesians!), but their small screens will always limit the amount of information one can take in with a quick scan. However, in this era of book-sized tablet PCs (Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy tab, Motorola XOOM, etc.) we may now be able to finally digitally replicate the paper field guide experience. With embedded JavaScript the digital pages can also be more interactive than a paper book could ever be; for instance, by integrating an interactive key into a beautiful book page (interactive keys to date, while useful, look like computer applications rather than books).

Better even than a collection of HTML pages would be to present the digital book using the ePub standard (essentially HTML pages, CSS stylesheets, images, and metadata zipped into to a single file). Unfortunately, included JavaScript is not part of the ePub standard, although it is allowed and does work with several e-book readers, including iBooks for the iPhone and iPad, Kovid Goyal’s ebook-viewer (part of the excellent calibre suite), and sigil. I think we have just started to scratch the surface of what digital books might become: they can be as beautiful as printed books, more interactive, and, the ultimate goal for a fieldguide, possibly better equipped to feed information to the reader.

2 thoughts on “Field guides, past and future

  1. You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be really something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complicated and very broad for me. I am looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

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