Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter, 2000, 3:21
© 2000 by Chelonian Research Foundation

Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter

Preliminary Comments on Building Chelonian Libraries

John P. Levell
NorthStar Herpetological’s Biblioteca Chelonia - Turtle and Tortoise Book Shop
P.O. Box 389, Lanesboro, MN 55949 USA;

Books, periodicals and other assorted publications on turtles, turtle literature if you will, have always been of major interest to those who work with chelonians on a regular basis. Although the same is undoubtedly true in many other areas of study as well, “turtle people” overall, whether hobbyist, wildlife manager, conservationist or academic researcher, to a greater or lesser extent almost invariably all build some sort of reference library. While some will be content with a few select titles of rather narrow taxonomic scope, many more ardent “chelonian bibliophiles” (this author included) can amass truly prodigious selections of somehow relevant titles.

Regardless of library scope or size, everyone interested in turtles and tortoises likewise seems to be actively searching for at least one more publication to add to their bookshelves. Trouble is, with few notable exceptions, much of what has been written on turtles including a fair number of relatively recently released titles can prove to be somewhat difficult to find at best.

Naturally, a number of factors are at least partially responsible for the overall lack of readily available turtle publications. Targeting an obviously somewhat limited audience, for example, means that most books on turtles are produced in very small press runs to begin with and small press runs in turn translates into limited quantities. While some of the most popular titles have been reprinted multiple times and/or in differing formats (i.e. Pope’s Turtles of the United States and Canada, Carr’s Handbook of Turtles, Pritchard’s Encyclopedia of Turtles, Ernst and Barbour’s Turtles of the World), most volumes on turtles are printed only once and when all copies have been sold such titles are basically gone.

While also typically printed in small numbers, turtle publications produced outside of the United States, including a substantial number of important English language references of value to those interested in species found outside of North America, present the additional problem of relative obscurity as well. More simply put, before one realizes such publications even exist they are often nearly if not already completely out-of-print. This, in combination with all too common difficulties in dealing with many foreign publishers and the obvious competition from other overseas purchasers, results in only a tiny fraction of the copies produced ever entering the U.S. marketplace.
Similar problems likewise effect the availability of smaller publications on turtles appearing in the notes, transactions and proceedings produced by museums both here in the U.S. and overseas. Factor in the very real tendency of herpetologists in general, and of turtle people in particular to retain rather than recycle relevant references as needed and it becomes clearer as to why many turtle publications are so difficult find. In fact, in the case of some rarer chelonian titles, one basically has to wait until some colleague dies (obviously not high on anybody’s list of things to wish for) and their library dissolved before a single copy is again available for purchase.

Obviously, basic economic principals related to the “law of supply and demand” will largely determine just how much one has to pay in order to obtain the references needed. Generally speaking older titles, subjected as they are to the loss and destruction naturally associated with the processes of aging, will be proportional more expensive than more recently released publications. This is particularly true of important early references such as Hay’s Fossil Turtles of North America (1908), Garman’s The Galapagos Tortoises (1917), Günther’s The Gigantic Land Tortoises (Living and Extinct) in the Collection of the British Museum (1877), as well as numerous other older titles on chelonians, which routinely sell for several hundred dollars per copy or more. Really rare titles, original editions of Anatome Testudinis Europaeae by Bojanus (1819-1821) or Thomas Bell’s A Monograph of the Testudinata (1832-1842) for example, can be substantially more expensive indeed, with copies (if available at all) commanding prices exceeding those of many brand new automobiles.

A number of more recently out-of-print but nevertheless still highly sought after turtle publications, while proportionally less expensive than those mentioned above, may likewise easily cost two to three times more now than they did when originally released. Volumes like Cann’s Tortoises of Australia (1978), Frieberg’s Turtles of South America (1981), Pritchard’s The Alligator Snapping Turtle (1989), and even the 1971 Dover Publications reprint of Babcock’s classic review of New England’s turtles certainly all must be included in this category. Virtually any out-of-print title on turtles, however, will only increase in value as time passes.

Everything considered, this all means that it is far better to add wanted items to one’s collection sooner rather than later. Based on the author’s experiences as both chelonian library builder and as a natural history book dealer, doing so requires some degree of patience, a little luck, and a fair amount of work. At the same time, experience has also taught me that the rewards associated with thumbing through the pages of some long coveted volume, or with finally adding that last essential reference needed to complete the perfect turtle library, makes all the effort worthwhile. Until next time, “Nuff Said” .

Editors’ Note: Starting in the next issue, John Levell will be doing a regular column on book reviews.