This is a web version of the printed introduction to The Richmond Index to the Genera and Species of Birds. The Richmond Index is a major collection of 108 microfiche that reproduce the nomenclatural catalogue of Charles W. Richmond (1868–1932) of the Smithsonian Institution. The text of the introduction is reproduced here in its entirety. Citations to this publication should refer to the original print/fiche version:

Richmond, Charles W. 1992.
The Richmond Index to the Genera and Species of Birds (Robert J. O’Hara, ed.). Boston: G.K. Hall & Company.

The Richmond Index to the Genera and Species of Birds


On the 29th of January in 1897, Charles Wallace Richmond, then Assistant Curator of Birds in the United States National Museum, wrote to his friend Witmer Stone telling him of a great task he had undertaken.

I am employing my spare time (what little I get) in making a card catalogue of described species of birds, both living and extinct, and genera, giving the names, as originally spelled, complete reference and date of publication, type locality; also data for the type specimen when given. During the past year I have compiled about 1500 of these cards, going through works where the date of publication was more or less certain. [Stone, 1933: 10]

Begun in 1889, when Richmond was 21, the card catalog of birds became his life’s work. Every evening at his apartment on 9th Street N.W., across from where the National Portrait Gallery now stands in Washington, Richmond would edit and extend the list of names, and print the blank forms he used for the common journals on his own small printing press. Stone visited this nomenclatural laboratory on many occasions, and described its arrangement and the working style of its director:

The printing press and type cases stood in one corner of the room and his book case in another. After the table had been cleared and a reading lamp adjusted, he removed his coat, for he, like many another man who has accomplished great things, could not satisfactorily carry on his work either at home or at the museum unless he were in his shirt sleeves; then he would get out his box of cards and the volume upon which he happened to be working, light a cigar, wind up an early variety of phonograph in which he took great delight, and begin the compilation. [Stone, 1933: 11–12]

By 1912 Richmond considered the catalog three-fifths complete, with 30,000 finished cards and 10,000 more containing fragmentary information. At this time he devised a publication plan, under which individuals or institutions would subscribe and receive printed copies of all the new cards as they were completed, much in the same way as libraries could subscribe to the catalog cards of the Library of Congress. This plan was described in an editorial in the Auk (Stone, 1912), and Richmond printed several sets of sample cards, but for whatever reason the plan was not carried through. Another publication plan, to print a new list of all the generic names of birds as a replacement for the earlier work of Waterhouse (1889), had the misfortune of being sponsored by a German zoological society on the eve of the First World War, and it fell through as well (Stone, 1933: 14). The card catalog continued to serve as the basis for some important nomenclatural publications of the National Museum (Richmond, 1902, 1908, 1917, 1927), but its overall usefulness remained restricted to those few specialists who could consult it in Washington, or who were on close enough terms with Richmond—his friends C. Davies Sherborn and Gregory M. Mathews (1925, 1932), for example—to ask Richmond to consult it for them. Now at last the fruits of Richmond’s labor are available to the whole ornithological community, just as he had always wished.

To those who have never known bibliographic compulsions of the kind that fired Richmond, the compilation of a catalog such as this must appear inexpressibly tedious. But the true bibliographer knows otherwise. The thrill of pursuing obscure and fragmentary references, the satisfaction of correcting ancient errors, the delightful encounters with the all-too-human enterprise of publishing that make one laugh out loud while all alone in the library—these are the joys of the bibliographer. Witmer Stone recalled one such encounter to which Richmond himself had been a party.

A set of corrections [by Richmond] to a paper published in the Proceedings of the North China Branch of the Asiatic Society arrived too late for inclusion in the main text and the authors decided to publish it as an appendix but, through some misunderstanding on the part of the printer, only the title and author’s name appeared. Richmond in writing to me about it said: “The ‘appendix’ as it appeared is a perfect blank, and therefore, constitutes the shortest paper in my bibliography.” [Stone, 1933: 14]

If Charles Wallace Richmond once held the record for the shortest publication in systematic ornithology, he now without doubt holds the record for the longest. The Richmond Index to the Genera and Species of Birds, 70,000 cards long and the product of forty years’ work, will, as Witmer Stone declared (1932: 392), “ever be a monument to his knowledge and industry.”

Literature Cited

Robert J. O’Hara
Postdoctoral Fellow
National Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian Institution

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