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Charles Davies Sherborn and the Index Animalium

Index Animalium

In the 1890s, a time before the expediency of the internet, Charles Davies Sherborn embarked upon a meticulous and expansive research project on par with the Oxford English Dictionary—only he did it single-handedly.

The Index Animalium, Sherborn’s life’s work, is a 9,000-page behemoth of a bibliography containing over 400,000 organisms, along with the first book in which each organism appeared between the years 1758 and 1850. It encompasses about 7,700 book titles in over ten languages. This means Sherborn was a skilled scientist and linguist who averaged a different book every other day during the 43 years he spent compiling the Index.

It isn’t surprising, then, that the 1943 Oxford Journal of Molluscan Studies eulogized Sherborn as “the greatest bibliographer and index-maker of his time, perhaps of all time.”

In the early years of his career as a geologist, Sherborn spent countless hours searching libraries for specific citations and references. He realized his research would be much easier if there was a comprehensive bibliography detailing those citations. In his spare time, he began to compile what were to become the beginnings of the Index Animalium. Soon he received support from the British Association for the Advancement of Sciences and the British Museum (Natural History), and was able to dedicate the rest of his life to the completion of the Index.

While Sherborn created an extremely useful—and widely used—resource for scientists, the books he listed are currently spread all over the world, some even in rare single copies. This makes it difficult for today’s scientists to find the physical citations, even though the books are plainly listed in the Index.

In 2004, the Libraries’ proposal to create an interactive online database of the Index Animalium was granted. Since then, a team of Smithsonian librarians, IT specialists, catalogers, and interns have been working to locate and digitize all the titles in Sherborn’s bibliography and, for the first time ever, to make the citations in this preeminent work free and easily accessible to the world. The Index Animalium serials project was created by Courtney Ann Shaw and Suzanne Pilsk.

Risa Seidman, Libraries Intern

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