Visible reflectance spectroscopy (VRS) has been used to reconstruct lake sediment chlorophyll a concentrations. Despite good concordance between inferred and measured chlorophyll a values, questions remain as to whether this spectral technique is tracking past changes in aquatic primary production, or simply recording a diagenetic signal. In this study, we critically evaluate how well VRS chlorophyll a determinations track past trends in aquatic primary production using sediment cores from several lake systems with well-known trophic histories. Our study sites include Arctic, boreal and prairie lakes that encompass a gradient of trophic states. In general, our spectrally inferred chlorophyll a values tracked past trends in lake trophic status consistent with historical measurements of production, or as inferred by independent proxies of primary production. We conclude that VRS chlorophyll a inferences indeed track histories of lake production trends and that this method is widely applicable as a rapid, inexpensive and non-destructive alternative to wet-chemical analyses of sediment chlorophyll a concentrations. © Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009.