The early years
I’ve always had a love for books. It was something distilled into me in my early childhood, and even now I still have collections of books I used to read, like The Hardy Boys, packed in boxes in my parents’ home in South Africa. My interest in wildlife owes much to my parents given that family holidays more often meant trips to the bush (Kruger) than the coast. They were also very supportive of me when, instead of opting to go to university to pursue a degree, I instead opted to go to what was then Pretoria Technikon (now the Tshwane University of Technology) to study for a diploma in Nature Conservation. The training was very hands on, and more practically oriented, and I purchased a number of field guides on everything from birds to grasses to help support my studies. Fortunately, one thing South Africa has not lacked for is good natural history field guides. There have always been multiple excellent bird guides to choose from, several excellent mammal guides (although that by Chris and Tilde Stuart is surely the premier reference), but also guides for trees, herps, dragonflies and pretty much everything else. I bought them all and while most of them are now definitely showing their age, they were undoubtedly the beginnings of my fascination with books as a reference source.
The collection begins (2000-2002)
The library as it stands now first started to take shape during my years living in Oxford (2000-2002) while based at the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. After 3.5 years working at the University of Pretoria’s Mammal Research Unit (much of that time spent with the late John Skinner revising what would eventually become the 3rd edition of The Mammals of the Southern African Subregion), I had moved to the UK to help Jonathan Kingdon edit his magnus opus, the multi-volume Mammals of Africa (MoA). It’s probably no surprise that Jonathan himself had a superb library, while the University of Oxford’s zoology department was home to the wonderful Alexander Library of Ornithology in the Edward Grey Institute (which, while primarily bird focused, had a superb collection of mammalogical titles). Both sources proved immensely critical to helping edit profiles in those very early years of MoA, but I quickly found that I needed more ready access to some key reference works to save me constantly trucking to the library or to Islip (where Jonathan lived). I also had a ready fascination for these "classics" and so began my first attempts to acquire some key titles, including several of the key major country reference works, such as those by Reay Smithers for Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, Shortridge for Namibia, and William Ansell for Zambia and Malawi. I also benefitted at this time from a colleague at what was then Academic Press (who, at that time, were the publishers of MoA) who furnished me with free copies of various titles in the T&D Poyser Natural History series and other imprints. Over the two years I spent in Oxford, I very slowly (I was earning a pittance after all!) built a small, but good collection of titles – enough, anyway, to cost me £500 in shipping fees to get them back to South Africa when my right to work in the UK ended in mid-2002 and moved back there.
The collection expands (2003-2010)
In February of 2003, I moved to Washington DC to take up a position working with Conservation International. Over the course of several trips to and from DC and Jo’burg, I slowly relocated my small library to the US, all the while slowly growing my collection there. It was while in the US that my library grew to become not just a library on African mammals, but to conservation more generally. There were two key drivers of this: first, part of my work at CI involved working on the CEMEX book publication series, including two titles, Wildlife Spectacles and Hotspots Revisited. I acquired most of the CEMEX books during this time, but also various other publications that CI had a hand in producing during these years, including a near-complete series of RAP reports and various field guides. However, it was the closure of the IUCN Publications Unit in Cambridge during these years that really helped grow my collection, as titles that would have been dumped were shipped to the US for us to distribute. So it was that I collated a pretty much complete set of IUCN action plans (the "black jackets" as we called them) and the Occasional Papers series (featured in the photograph), plus various Red Data books that had been published in the 1970s to 1990s. Of course, most of these works are now available online for free, but some are not and complete print collections are held only by IUCN itself and a handful of individuals. Meanwhile, I continued to build my African mammal library, acquiring some key works during this time like Meester and Sezter's landmark (ring-bound) Mammals of Africa: an Identification Manual. By the end of the decade, my collection had probably quadrupled in size and was taking up several bookcases in my office at CI.
Slow acquisition (2010-2020)
In early 2010, I left the US and relocated back to England to Cambridge to take up a new position working with the IUCN Species Survival Commission. This meant once again shipping my books half-way across the world. Over the course of the next decade, I continued to acquire various titles and publications, often going through spurts when I would purchase 3 or 4 books at once and then nothing for many months on end. It became harder to just walk into a second-hand book shop and find a title I didn’t have (one of the great joys in life!). Then, around 2015 or 2016, I had a little windfall. UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC), where I was based, had decided to downsize its own impressive little library and was shedding a bunch of titles. I pounced. In the process I picked up several titles I didn’t have (e.g., the ICBP Technical Publications series, in photo at left), but also a near complete sets of several IUCN SSC Specialist Group newsletters (some dating back to the early 1980s and many now impossible to find).
Plugging gaps (2021-)
Towards the end of the decade I was starting to become more strategic in terms of the titles I was searching out. I started to keep a list of titles I wanted to acquire, and to focus more on plugging gaps (like Francis Harper's Extinct and Vanishing Mammals of the Old World which I had had my eye on for a while; this copy was formerly owned by Ross Hardy, who wrote several papers on the mammals of Utah). Secondhand book websites are tremendously helpful for quickly getting a sense of what’s available, but there’s still no delight like walking into a second-hand bookshop and finding a title you’ve looking for just perched on the shelf. Unfortunately, it's near impossible to walk into a bookshop and find a secondhand copy of Burchell's Travels in the Interior of South Africa or Lavauden's Les vertèbres du Sahara waiting to be snapped up. Rubbish.