At the moment, I’m reading a book called Of Microscopes and Monsters by Martyn Kelly, who also has a blog with the same name. It’s about his work as an environmental consultant in Britain. Kelly focuses on algae, and particularly on diatoms as indicators of freshwater quality. This book, which is self-published, is freely available on Kelly’s website. I’ve downloaded it and printed it out primarily because it is full of images, many of them watercolor illustrations of algae done by Kelly himself–he also has training in art.
By the quality of the layout and of the content, I would assume that Kelly tried to find a publisher. On the one hand, I am sorry he didn’t because his book deserves a broader audience since he does a wonderful job of explaining not only why algae are so crucial in understanding water pollution, but also how many variables are involved in trying to measure water quality. This book is aimed at the general reader and is crystal clear, yet doesn’t shun the complexities of the issues involved.
Having said all this, I am obviously glad that Kelly was generous enough to offer a free download. This is the kind of intellectual generosity for which I have great respect–and gratitude. Another person of the same ilk is Laurence Hill, who has done an amazing job of documenting all species of the flowering plant genus Fritillaria. He uses digital photography and has spent years growing the species and then photographing the entire plant (roots included) as well as plant parts such as the capsules, seeds, bulbs, and flowers. He has then taken the individual parts and arranged them so their varied sizes and forms can be compared across species. He has done the same for the plants as a whole: a lineup according to their evolutionary relationships, based not only on morphological data but DNA sequence information as well. The resulting composite image is available in a downloadable booklet on Hill’s Icones Fritillaria website. Facts sheets and images of the various species as well as comparison sheets of pods, etc. are also downloadable–the entire site is open source–definitely a model for plant information sites and visually beautiful as well. As a final note, the booklet is related to a display of a large copy of the composite image that was on display at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. It took up an entire wall, and was obviously the best way to appreciate the extent of Hill’s accomplishment.
A final example of generosity on the web is not quite as spectacular as the first two, but it’s still very helpful. Timber Press’s Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy makes the argument that filling a garden with native plants helps to restore habitats because the plants then attract and support animal species native to the area, especially insects. Some of these, in turn, assist in keeping invasive insect species under control. Timber Press obviously wants the book to sell and sees tantalizing the reader as a marketing approach so it has made two chapters freely available on the web. Not only is the text readable and informative, but the photographs are very pleasing to the eye.