Pondering the purpose of a field guide
Let the task determine the tool
Different types of field guides are appropriate for different purposes, and for different users.The purpose of, and demand for the guide, are specified by defining
- Which people will use or benefit from it. Define your users.
- How many such people will use it. How many copies might be printed.
- Usage: what will the users use it for; how they will benefit: this will soon involve agreeing a list of plants to be covered.
- How easily will they be able to use it, in terms of the format, language and methods. Will they have access to a computer?
- Where they will use it (which areas will be covered?; will the guide be used only in the field?).
- When they will use it (which seasons?); will the trees be leafless; will it often be raining when the guide is in use?.
- Distinguish in your mind the difference between a guide with a need and one with a niche. A need for a guide does not guarantee it will be a success. Your guides must have a well-defined niche.
Engage with users and others in the planning phase
There are 100 good ideas for every practical one, and 100 practical ones for each that ultimately bears fruit.
It is recommended that prospective users be shown various existing formats of field guide, and their responses to the various elements noted closely and respected in the final design.
If you are writing the guide only for very like-minded people, and you meet and chat with many such people regularly, there is little need to make a special, conscious effort to meet and involve potential users whilst planning the guide. Usually, however this is not the case. Field guides are usually intended for people with different experience and backgrounds to the author. It is then especially important to meet and involve a cross-section of potential users systematically, or in workshops, or at least more casually but extensively, to clarify their needs and capabilities. Apart from anything else, this process will help you clarify who exactly your users will be.
People involved with the project should be involved in planning. However, not everything in a field guide plan can be steered democratically. For a start, there is the critical need for someone to provide the vision, to plan and focus these meetings, and that initial vision is likely to be the most important influence on what finally emerges, for without it probably nothing will get created.
Either way, if you have already conceived the purpose of a field guide with a sharp enough eye on the real world, interaction with potential users may result in little change to your original concept – but there is still much more to be gained than can be lost, even if the authors simply make an extra effort to meet and talk with potential users during periods of fieldwork.
Is it realistic?
Challenge yourself and your prospective users. Is it just a nice idea, or is it really going to be in demand or serve a useful purpose? A bit of hard self-criticism, external review, and early interaction with potential users, beneficiaries, funders, suppliers, at the earliest planning stages helps prevent grief later.
Estimate on the safe side, based on initial lists: (upper) numbers of species, pages, artwork costs, travel expenses, printing costs, and (lower) market sizes. This analysis may cause you to redefine your intended users and purpose, maybe for more users or fewer species.
Consider factors such as the other, competing publications and expertise that exist, printing and distribution costs, maybe even in different countries, and users’ willingness or ability to pay.
Maybe there is a better way than a field guide to achieve the desired effects? Maybe an arboretum with labelled trees in the village? A basic field herbarium? Guided walks by local experts? A few pictures to help people use an existing Flora?
Although we have a broad view of the potential format of a field guide –from software, to book or pack of cards - and posters along a path might be just included as field guides if many species are covered, posters advertising single species (see Kew's Cameroon posters) can hardly be called field guides: but maybe this is all you need?
How good is your species check-list? If it is a first approximation, are you aware how long a full check-list might take? Maybe you or someone else should first undertake more basic research, to create a full check-list; or a monograph e.g. of medicinal plants; or survey of plants in use and their relationship to local names, before you can start to plan exactly how big a field guide needs to be? The ultimate goal might be the field guide, but perhaps you first need to complete a check-list as a separate project, and only then start planning for a field guide?
If the field guide is to be a commercial proposition, then the potential market should be thought about and researched with some sort of market survey.
If it is to be charitable or supported by a development project, maybe the funding agency will want to modify your purpose slightly (e.g. expand the coverage area or languages used) and a compromise is needed.
Are you aware that a guide to a few key useful species (‘an incomplete guide’) may not work as intended unless many other species are added?
In either case, whether ruthlessly commercial or subsidised, the availability of resources will often reduce initial plans to more prosaic levels, and in other cases the number of species that would have to be included rises alarmingly.
The final field guide will also reflect skills and background and cost of time and availability of the authors (and of other people that the authors have access to the services of). This can either be seen as an opportunity or a restriction, but it will certainly limit how close to the ideal goal a field guide can get.