Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Sometimes No Links are a Good Idea

By Dennis D. McDonald

My 5-year-old neighbor uncupped his hands to reveal their contents and asked, “Can you tell me what this is?”

Held gently in his hand was a beautiful, fat, hairy caterpillar curled up in a disc about 2.5 inches across. The body and hairs were black. In between the segments you could see dark red coloring.

To be honest, the only caterpillar I know for sure is the tent caterpillar that is infesting the trees — and floating through the air — throughout our Virginia neighbourhood these days.

I sensed an opportunity. “Let me check my books to see if I have something.” I went inside and grabbed a half dozen field guides and picture books from my home library related to wildlife and insects and took the stack  outside. I know we could have looked up the fuzzy little critter on the web more quickly but I thought, hey, let’s sit outside under the trees while we look it up. I figured a little demonstration of the Value of Books to this boy (and his 3-year old brother) would be A Good Thing.

We sat under a tree in his yard at a small picnic table and started paging through the most likely candidates. As we looked from one bug or caterpillar after the other, the little boy grasped my arm tightly with one hand while holding the mystery creature in the other.

I couldn’t find it. But I knew I had seen it before.

Then I remembered another bookshelf in the house that held a  stack of old Golden Nature Guides, small hand sized volumes I had inherited from my dad. I went back in to the bookshelf and saw, sure enough, tucked in the back was “Butterflies and Moths: A guide to the more common American species, with 423 illustrations in color.” The latest copyright date was 1964 but the small volume (6”x3.5”x.6”) was in pristine condition and still flexible.

I took it back outside, paging through it on the way, and there on page 110 was the Great Leopard Moth, the caterpillar stretched out on a leaf, as well as the doughnut-shaped rolled up version (“…crimson rings between segments show distinctly when the larva rolls into a ball.”) The talk then turned to rearing the moth indoors.

Later on I took a few minutes to read over the book itself. I remember having lots of these Golden Nature Guides around the house when I was a kid. My dad had always been interested in birdwatching and nature. The price printed on the cover: $1.25. Such a deal!

Looking more closely, I was impressed at the quality and content of this little book. Not only was there a profusion of illustrations of hundreds of moths, butterflies, and skippers, the book was also well organized with clear text, well designed pages, and information on collecting, mounting and rearing specimens of Lepidoptera. A list of scientific names was included in the back along with page-edge rulers showing inches and centimeters. All in all, a very packed little volume with a ton of information for the budding nature enthusiast!

I thought back to my earlier desire to see if I could find the information in a book, not on the web. I guess I was just lucky to have this particular book on hand. Going online, you can see quickly there is no shortage of caterpillar related sites, one of the nicest ones being What’s This North American Caterpillar? One can easily become lost in traversing from search to link to search and back again, though. In some cases that makes great sense.

But I took another look and the book and realized that, despite its lacking easily traversed links to other sources, it was very well thought out and organized by a group of real professionals. Substantial effort had been put into selecting and creating the content for this volume which provided a surprisingly thorough survey of the topic for such a small volume.

Reading up (online) on the Golden Nature Guide series (many of the original  publications are collector’s items) you can see that that was, indeed, the editorial goal of the series as originally published. This is stated on the back cover of Butterflies and Moths:

The Golden Nature Guides are an introduction to the world of nature, a guide to the most common, most easily seen, and most interesting aspects of the world around us. Each guide combines the authority of an eminent scientist and of an expert in science education - Herbert S. Zim. These 160 page books overflow with accurate full color illustrations and concise, double-checked information which makes identification and understanding the subject easy and enjoyable.”

This is a very clear statement of purpose that I think is still relevant. Some qualified people have thought a lot about a topic and have put together an introduction that is not a textbook following a lesson plan but a technically accurate subject guide that provides a ton of information. Can the same thing  be done on the web? Of course it can.

But this gets me to the title of this piece: Sometimes No Links are a Good Idea. Basically, a book like Butterflies and Moths is a self contained package. You can take it anywhere and read it. When you do, there is a large enough body of information that can be looked at, read, and thought about for hours. You can use it as a source for answering specific questions, or you can use it to get a general overview of a topic to see if you want to do more detailed research. And it’s all there in your hands in a form that can be slipped into a pocket ort read underneath the bedcovers at night by the light of a flashlight.

I’m not being anti-web here, I’m just saying that there is value to a self contained body of knowledge where thought is put into organizing and presenting key facts in a thorough yet entertaining way. Even when such information is presented on the web, the possibility exists that the user will become lost in traversing links to potentially irrelevant sites and sources. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes that’s bad.  

Is there a way to use the web to present as topic in as well packaged and organized a fashion? Of course it can, but I don’t know enough about publishing and education today to answer that question with examples that are comparable to Golden Nature Guides.

  • Copyright (c) 2008 by Dennis D. McDonald


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