History of the O'Reilly cover animals

O’Reilly’s cover designer tells the story of how they came to use animals on the covers of their popular books

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O’Reilly books are well known within the IT community, not just for the technical knowledge they impart, but also for the animal engravings on many of the covers. But why and when did that tradition come about? The story has now been shared by the woman responsible for this now-famous tradition.


Camels: ugly but serviceable - just like Perl

Image credit: REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori

Edie Freedman, O’Reilly’s cover designer, told the story in a recent blog post (actually, she also wrote about it back in 2000). Brought in by a neighbor who worked for O’Reilly in the mid-1980s to help with covers for their new “Nutshell Handbooks” for Unix, Freedman came from the VAX/VMS world. She found 19th century engravings of “odd-looking” animals to be a “good match for all those strange-sounding UNIX terms,” she wrote.

While some at O’Reilly didn’t like the choice, the man’s whose vote counted the most did. “Tim got it immediately—he liked the quirkiness of the animals, thought it would help to make the books stand out from other publishers’ offerings—and it just felt right.” Two of the first chosen were the slender lorises used on sed & awk. So was born a fun tradition.

Poke around the O’Reilly site and there’s more interesting info on their use of animals on book covers. Here’s a blog post from 2000 in which one of the cover illustrators at the time time talks about her process for creating the cover art. The full (and lengthy) list of all the animals used on O’Reilly’s books can be found here.

Freedman remains the person who chooses the animal to go on new O’Reilly books. Here she talks about the process for choosing an animal for a new book:

I ask the authors to supply me with a description of the topic of the book. What I am looking for is adjectives that really give me an idea of the "personality" of the topic.... Sometimes it is based on no more than what the title sounds like. (COFF, for example, sounded like a walrus noise to me.) Sometimes it is very much linked to the name of the book or software. (For example, vi, the "Visual Editor," suggested some beast with huge eyes).

Freedman notes that while authors can have input in approving the cover, she is one who ultimately makes the final choice.

Interestingly, that page also discusses the choice of one of the most famous O’Reilly covers: the Perl camel, which apparently came from Larry Wall, who argued it was an appropriate choice because camels are “ugly but serviceable.” Sounds about right.

I kept that Perl book (along with this one) handy during my coding years, along with these other classics:

Are you a fan of the O’Reilly books, or their covers? What’s your favorite (book or cover)? Let’s hear it in the comments.

Read more of Phil Johnson's #Tech blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Phil on Twitter at @itwphiljohnson. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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