Origin of Species: A History of O'Reilly Animals

by Edie Freedman

Since the late 1980's, when I designed the first O'Reilly Animal covers, I've been deluged with questions from our customers about how I choose the animals. People have all sorts of theories about why a specific animal is chosen for a specific topic. Even the authors of the books ask questions--some authors have been upset with my choices because they think people will think they are as fat as a hippopotamus, or as silly as a blue-footed booby. I never reveal the reasons behind my choices, but I can assure all interested parties that there is always a reason. (No, I'm not going to tell you here, either.)

When I was first approached by O'Reilly to propose new covers for their books, I was immersed in the VAX/VMS world of Digital Equipment Corporation. I had heard of UNIX, but I had a very hazy idea of what it was. I had never met a UNIX programmer or tried to edit a document using vi. All of the terms associated with vi, sed and awk, uucp, lex, yacc, curses, to name just a few, sounded to me like words that might come out of a popular game called "Dungeons and Dragons." I developed a mental picture of the UNIX programmer as a "Dungeons and Dragons" player. As I started to look for imagery for the book covers, I came across some wonderful wood engravings from the 19th century. The strange animals I found seemed to be a perfect match for all those strange-sounding UNIX terms, and were esoteric enough to appeal to what I believed the UNIX programmer type to be.

When I presented the first animal covers to the people at O'Reilly, they were a bit taken aback.

"But they're so ugly!" said one.

"No one will want to pick these up!" said another.

"They're scary!"

Tim liked the quirkiness of the animals, and thought it would help to make the books stand out from other publishers' offerings. Today, the O'Reilly animal brand is well known all over the world.

The Making of an O'Reilly Animal--Meet Lorrie LeJeune, O'Reilly editor and part-time artist. She may have created the animal on your favorite O'Reilly book.

We've learned all sorts of things about the animals from our readers and authors. One author desperately wanted to have a boll weevil on his book cover, so he sent me a pile of information about boll weevils, carefully pointing out all of the reasons why the boll weevil was the perfect animal for the topic. I ended up using it for his book, Oracle Web Applications.

Once in a while, because we have limited information about some of the engravings we use, we'll make an error identifying an animal. Our readers are always eager to straighten us out. I once misread the caption for the engraving of a monkey and told the colophon editor that the monkey was a chimpanzee. We got an avalanche of mail from readers informing us that chimpanzees absolutely do not have tails!

I also hear from readers who have phobias about certain animals, particularly spiders, snakes, and cats. The husband of one reader complained about our use of a spider on and in Webmaster in a Nutshell. Spiders terrified his wife. He went through the entire book and put white tape over the graphic on the first page of every chapter so she wouldn't have to confront the spider. Another customer sent angry email telling us he'd never go to one of the pages on our web site because it had a snake on it. Because it was our "How to Order" page, we changed it.

On a more somber note, working with the animal engravings has made me much more aware of what is happening to our environment. Many of the animals that appear on our covers are endangered--the tarsier from Learning the vi Editor, the lorises from sed & awk, the Victoria Crowned Pigeons from lex & yacc, and the Florida panther from Java Foundation Classes in a Nutshell, just to name a few. At the time most of the engravings were created, in the last century, these animals were plentiful. Perhaps our use of animal images on our covers will encourage people to work harder to save the species that are still sharing the planet with us.