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A Short History of the O’Reilly Animals

How Lions, Tigers, and Tarsiers Went Geek

Nutshell Handbook

One of the original Nutshell Handbooks

In the mid-1980s, O’Reilly (aka O’Reilly & Associates) was selling short books on Unix topics via mail order. These books, known as “Nutshell Handbooks,” were held together by staples, and had plain brown covers. Over time, Tim O’Reilly decided that he wanted to sell the books through brick-and-mortar bookstores, and hired a graphic designer to create new book covers. Those covers were used for the first two titles that were sold into bookstores, but Tim wasn’t satisfied with the design.

A neighbor of mine worked at O’Reilly as a technical writer and marketer. She showed me the covers they’d had designed, and wondered if I might have a better idea. At that point in my career, I was immersed in the VAX/VMS world of Digital Equipment Corporation as an executive producer of slides and video. I had heard of Unix, but I had a very hazy idea of what it was. I’d never met a Unix programmer or tried to edit a document using vi. Even the terms associated with Unix—vi, sed and awk, uucp, lex, yacc, curses, to name just a few—were weird. They sounded to me like words that might come out of Dungeons and Dragons, a game that was popular with a geeky (mostly male) subculture.


The slender lorises I used on the cover of one of our earliest animal books, sed & awk.

Sometimes when designing, things come together effortlessly—everything falls into place as if it were inevitable. It just flows. As I looked for images for the book covers, I came across some odd-looking animal engravings from the 19th century. They seemed to be a good match for all those strange-sounding UNIX terms, and were esoteric enough that I figured they’d probably appeal to programmers. And, as I investigated the attributes of the real animals, I quickly discovered that there were intriguing correspondences between specific technologies and specific animals. That resonance grew and expanded as I learned more about both the technologies and the animals. I was so energized and inspired that I spent an entire weekend working on the covers without much sleep. At the end of the weekend, I gave several sketches to my neighbor to take into the office.

Some of the people at O’Reilly were taken aback: they thought the animals were weird, ugly, and a bit scary. But 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. And so it began. We’ve published hundreds of Animal books since then, and the brand is well known worldwide.

A few things we’ve learned over time:

Exploring Expect

Not a chimp.

Chimpanzees don’t have tails. I once misread the caption on an engraving and mistakenly identified a monkey as a chimp. We got an avalanche of mail from readers informing us that chimpanzees absolutely do not have tails (our readers are all over this stuff).

People will go to great lengths to avoid seeing certain animals. 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 website because it had a snake on it. It was our “How to Order” page. We replaced the snake with a rather pleasant-looking rabbit.

People like animals with faces. The images we use on the Animal books are from the entire animal kingdom, from large land mammals like tigers and elephants to fishes, birds, insects, and invertebrates. We’ve discovered that people respond most positively to animals that 1) have recognizable faces; and 2) are looking directly at the audience.

O'Reilly Animal Books

Which one of these covers do you find most appealing?


The animals are in trouble.  Doing research on the animals as O’Reilly cover designer Karen Montgomery and I work with the engravings has made us hyper-aware of the plight of wild animals worldwide. Many of the animals that appear on our covers are critically endangered–the tarsier from Learning the vi & Vim Editors, the lorises from sed & awk, the Hawksbill turtle from Getting Started with CouchDB, and the tiger from Running Mac OS X Tiger, just to name a few. When most of the engravings were created in the 19th century, these animals were plentiful. Today, between habitat destruction, hunting, poaching, human/animal conflicts, and the illegal wildlife trade, many species that were abundant 100 years ago are teetering on the brink of extinction.

We hope that by highlighting conservation projects large and small, from no-tech to high-tech, on the O’Reilly Animals website will not only raise awareness of what is already being done; perhaps it will also inspire smart, tech-savvy people like you to come up with new ways to save and protect the world’s wild animals. For us, that’s work that really matters.

Comments: 16

  1. I appreciate this history and the animals do make the books stand out and identify them as O’Reily books. The one bone I have to pick is that Python for Data Analysis is about a python module called Pandas and yet disappointingly and incomprehensibly there is not a panda on the cover. This seemed like an obvious pairing.

  2. Here’s a bit more on how covers are chosen, from O’Reilly’s guide for new authors:


  3. OSCON rocks if you are a fellow open source nerd or lover of free software. O’Reilly rocks for producing simply awesome tech biblio for nearly as long as Bill Gates has been wearing big boy pants. I owned and nearly memorized those first stapled Nutshell editions mentioned in this article. If you are old enough to have owned them, too, then you probably also have held a few 8″ floppies in your hands. If you think that’s something nasty, well, you are right, it was, but not the way you think. Cheers to these technical writing pioneers.

  4. http://oreilly.com/animals.html should be linked here, and updated (or maybe it should an open version made).

    • We just assembled an updated database of all of our animals, so we hope to set up a new page that will automatically get updated as we create new covers. Stay tuned!

  5. “and incomprehensibly there is not a panda on the cover. This seemed like an obvious pairing.”

    They should have used a picture of a python swallowing a panda.

    • We’ve been saving the panda for some new, extremely significant technology that has some resonance with panda-ness. I can’t even count how many authors have requested a panda on their book over the past 20 years. (FWIW, We never show the animals devouring one another.)

  6. But how do you generate the wood cuts? Do you hire an artist like the ones who do the WSJ hedcuts? Or do you have some software?

    • We mostly use original 19th century engravings, but we do have an illustrator who does engraving-style scratchboard illustrations for us. It takes her 8-10 hours per illustration, unless the animal has a lot of details, such as a tiger (stripes that are made up of many strands of hair). I am constantly amazed at what she is able to produce for us.

  7. Penelope McFadin

    My first O”Reilly book was the Bass book, or _Learning the Bash Shell_. I also have the Grasshopper (DNS and BIND) and the Bat (Sendmail). Brings back a lot of memories. 🙂

  8. en efecto, las portadas de sus libros me han llamado mucho la atención, (“Jquery Cookbook” y “Programming Windows Presentation Foundation”, espero tengan mayor presencia sus libros en México, y claro esta que me gustan sus portadas

  9. “What is your animal?” is the first thing that everyone asks me when I tell them I write for O’Reilly.

  10. The animals were always interesting and fun. I liked the way the artist made them look like old-style wood engravings. They certainly set the books apart from the crowd. Great job. Fun memories.

  11. Is there a way to “mimic” this particular engraving style in Photoshop? For personal use only, of course.
    I’d prefer my personal Python notes to have a picture of the “Monty Python” comedians.

    I’d also like Taylor Swift on the cover of my Swift notes, but that’s another story.

    • All of our animals are either from original 19th c. engravings or contemporary scratchboard illustrations. It’s not easy to create the same effect in Photoshop without some special filters, which you may be able find by doing a Google search. And someone may have come up with a way to do it just using Photoshop filters — the Poster Edges filter might be something to play with. Let us know if you figure it out!

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