Originally named the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, SHNH was founded in 1936 by a small group of distinguished scientists, librarians and bibliographers whose appreciation and love of books inspired the formation of the Society in London. The Society's first President was Charles Davies Sherborn (1861–1942), who compiled the Index Animalium single-handedly over 43 years (1758–1850). This 11 volume, 9,000 page work became the basis for zoological nomenclature.
The Society's main publication is Archives of Natural History which is published for the Society by Edinburgh University Press. Archives of Natural History provides an avenue for the publication of papers on the history and bibliography of natural history in its broadest sense, and in all periods and all cultures. This includes botany, geology, palaeontology and zoology, the lives of naturalists, their publications, correspondence and collections, and the institutions and societies to which they belong. Bibliographical papers concerned with the study of rare books, manuscripts and illustrative material, and analytical and enumerative bibliographies are also published. From time to time, the Society also publishes other works of interest, the most recent being Darwin in the Archives. An informal Newsletter is also produced.
The Society holds a regular series of meetings on all aspects of the history of natural history. These range from short evening meetings to international conferences taking place over several days with associated visits. It holds an annual "Spring Meeting" incorporating the Annual General Meeting at which Officers of the Society are elected, accounts presented, and medals and awards are announced. Every alternate year this becomes an international conference usually in the form of a one- or two-day symposium on a selected theme. Its meetings are seen as an important contribution to forging links between all those working in the history of natural history, leading to lasting collaborations and friendships across national and international boundaries.
The Society is a registered charity under English law.
The Society seeks to promote the objectives for which it was founded by making awards for excellence in areas of its fields of activity.