Modular Field Guides
Modular guides have a framework containing an indeterminate number of species units (typically pages, with two sides) in a standard format or formats. The framework may be a ring binder, with introductory text and dividers for, perhaps, major leaf types. Although species level identification is usually the main goal of a field guide, genus, family or other species groups could also be treated as the basic units, e.g. in a modular guide to plant families.
The main advantages of a modular guide are that the species content can be incrementally added, removed or improved to suit a particular users circumstances, or as work on producing species pages progresses.
The cards have to be designed as picture-based, as browsing rather than analysis is to be promoted in this approach. The pictures should be designed to highlight crucial details in the same position on each card. This reduces language problems and the need to produce detailed diagnostic keys. However, for larger sets of cards (more than 20) it is useful to reduce the burden on the browsers by seeking broad categories (e.g. slash exudate and texture) which will probably apply and break up the set of species into usable groups, no matter which species are included.
The main access method in most modular guides is therefore likely to be pictures browsing, within broadly defined sections or categories. There may be another access method to reach the appropriate groups, e.g. a key to groups which is part of the framework of the guide, which will always work no matter which species are included. There is potential to develop species units with punched holes or other codes like the cards in a "species-per-card" punched card guide. The challenge therefore is to design and refine by testing a good template and framework. Although this can be optimised later, it would be better to perfect the template at the start of a project.
Some pages of a modular guide could be tailor-made to suit different users' circumstances, possibly printed from a computer based on user input. These include context specific keys or flow charts and name indexes, so a species can be located (at least to its group) based on its name. For this reason, modular guides may work best for large organisations seeking to improve species identification in their ‘territory’ through successive approximation and collaboration.
The main challenge for modular field guides– a problem and an opportunity at the same time - is management of their publication and distribution. The approach is ideally suited to distribution of species for field guides via the internet. The classic model for publication of music is to sell tracks in albums in record shops. The Music industry increasingly sells individual tracks via the Internet. Maybe a similar approach is possible for field guides?
Even if a field guide is ultimately published as a book to reduce overheads per species, or several different books are made for different areas, the modular planning method may be a good way to tackle the issues of facilitating and optimising a field guide, by promoting feedback from real users, and getting something working quickly. They are also an ideal way for promoting international collaboration via the internet.
A target of about 15-20 species units per month, averaged over a year or so, is reasonable for an author with assistant. In other words, it should be possible to complete a 200 species guide in a year.
Opportunities and advantages
- Species can be made and used one unit (e.g. page or card) at a time, using a standard format. Planners can target first the common or most important species, or those from a currently important area. Other species are added as time goes by, perhaps making the most of the fickleness of funding.
- This incremental approach is encouraging to the guide producers, who can soon get feedback before they produce too many species in a poor format.
- Different, collaborating projects can focus on different sets of species at the same time
- Projects can swap species to build a complete set. Individuals can remove species which do not interest them. Large organisations can promote species coverage by sub-contracting different species to the most suitable agencies.
- Individuals can make their own cards. Most species occur in many countries, so internationally there is vast scope for collaboration. WWF or IUCN could sponsor rare species; ITTO or FAO could sponsor economically important forest products. Individual NGOs could target rare species.
- Species new to science can be added as soon as the name is published. When names change, an individual card is updated.
- Local agencies, or franchisees, e.g. a Forestry Dept., herbarium or NGO, could be licensed to print out and laminate pages and to sell cards and locally tailored index cards and keys. Cards could be sold as sub-sets or one by one. Periodically, cards would be updated.
- Users also can be selective. For instance, timber cutters might only choose cards for large trees; forest managers might select these and trees of conservation interest; forest guards might include only the species in their local forest, and so on.
Problems with Modular formats
Books are the most popular format for field guides. with good reason. Annoying inefficiencies of sets of cards, or removable pages, which will have to be alleviated by research, or simply accepted as an acceptable compromise if modular guides are to be practical.
- The indexing of species (looking up a name to find the relevant page, when particular species may be present or not, depending on user selections)
- In a card format, some of the content for a species (e.g. the text, or usage details) has to be on the reverse on the main identification face, assuming the space is to be used efficiently and not left blank.
- Where several species are so similar that some sort of key, visual or otherwise, has to be included, all possible confusable species should be included. This can be circumvented by having key cards as a separate page unit, and tailored to the user in question
Funders please note!
o We are seeking funding for such an international collaborative project, based around a collaborative pantropical Modular Guide concept in the current Virtual Field herbarium web site.
o If you might be interested in collaborating or funding us, please let us know (email)
o There’s plenty of scope for funders to promote international collaboration, everyone can have their logos on each species-card that they sponsor. Publicity and pride will be in precise proportion to sponsorship.