PGS Series: Princeton Field Guides

In a previous installment of this Princeton Global Science feature, Ingrid Gnerlich, Senior Editor in Physical Sciences described the series Princeton Frontiers in Physics. Here, Natural History Editor and Science Group Publisher Robert Kirk recounts the history of one of the Press’s most prolific and popular series — The Princeton Field Guides. While many think of birds when they think of this distinctive series, Robert demonstrates that we are continuing to push the envelope with books on plants, mammals, and even the occasional dinosaur.

Let’s start with a first principle. A field guide has one clear objective: to help its users successfully identify whatever is treated in the guide. Easy enough. The modern field guide has been around since the 1930s, when Roger Tory Peterson broke the mold with his North American bird books. By any measure, Peterson’s achievement is impressive. Since then, there has been a veritable explosion in the number and diversity of field guides, and it’s possible to find a book for almost any situation.

The Princeton Field Guide series comprises books across the spectrum of natural history and the natural sciences. When John Gwynne and Robert Ridgely put together A Guide to the Birds of Panama, and took it to the Press in the late 1970s, a new era in international bird guides was ushered in. For the first time, a non-First World destination received the kind of treatment formerly reserved for Europe and North America. For aspiring neotropical birders there was a guide that would really help them in the forests of Central America and beyond. The Princeton guides had arrived.

Then followed Hilty and Brown’s extraordinary A Guide to the Birds of Colombia, which some would argue is one of the greatest achievements in modern field guide publishing. A massive avifauna was, at one stroke, made accessible by this masterful work. Princeton’s reputation as a publisher of groundbreaking field guides to international destinations grew as each book hit the market. Building on this success, the Press looked to acquire excellent guides from mainly European co-publishers and titles such as Lars Jonsson’s Birds of Europe (available now in a new edition here) and Sinclair et al.’s Birds of Southern Africa came into the fold. And this was pretty much the formula until 2000.

Today, the Press still publishes the very best books to far-flung destinations. Indeed, the Princeton Field Guide series is rich in such books –The Birds of East Africa, Birds of East Asia, Birds of Borneo, to name but a few. But the Press is now producing and publishing far more home-grown guides, still with a complete and unwavering commitment to quality but with a more concentrated focus on the Americas. Birds of Peru maintains the Press’s reputation for seminal South American guides, but we have pushed well beyond solely bird guides. David Wagner’s Caterpillars of Eastern North America was a big hit (a one-and-a-half-page feature in the New York Times’ Science Times) and is one of my favorite titles in this series. Sharks of the World and Whales, Dolphins, and Other Marine Mammals of the World are perennial favorites. Of late, we have added specialist botanical titles – Seeds of Amazonian Plants and the forthcoming Trees of Panama and Costa Rica alongside more regular fare that includes family field guides such as Joe Forshaw’s Parrots of the World. And of course we have just published The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs.

And to complement books in the PFG series, we have many other guides and two discrete series – Princeton Pocket Guides and Princeton Illustrated Checklists. The three series are growing year on year and the field guide program is moving into digital with a number of Apps planned for the coming years. Watch this space!

[correction made 10/4/10 to the years Peterson’s guide became available]