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In Praise Of Chemical Abstracts Service

December 1, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 48

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IN A RECENT LETTER to the editor, I decried the loss of books from library collections, noting that SciFinder has only 65% of the information available as an alternative (C&EN, Aug. 18, page 6). I am happy to report that after attending a recent CAS Americas conference, it is clear that Chemical Abstracts Service is making aggressive efforts to be as comprehensive as possible, and my estimate is well out of date. It was not my intention to deprecate the fine and powerful products produced by the dedicated team at CAS.

At this conference, my conversations with other attendees, mostly heads of libraries and information technologists, proved revealing. It appears that because of the perception that indexes such as SciFinder, STN, and Beilstein, as well as journals, are now found online, there has been a wholesale destruction of entire collections of hardbound Chemical Abstracts.

Many libraries did not stop there but also destroyed entire print collections of ACS journals, European and Asian journals, and even historic journals reaching to the early 19th century, such as Berichte and Annalen, all done in the name of creating new space.

These collections represented paid-for assets. They were replaced by subscriptions that are liabilities in the sense that if a budget cut halts the subscription, all access ceases. This is like burning down the house you own so you can rent.

The destruction of 19th-century journals is appalling; only a few thousand of each volume were published to serve the relatively small chemical community of that era, and they are especially vulnerable. These are not just informational but also historical documents.

Although the U.S. Constitution has numerous copies available, no one would dream of destroying the original because it is available online. Some sections of journals are already virtually extinct. There are now only three copies of Dmitry Mendeleyev's publication of the periodic table, and they exist only in private collections. Across the U.S., we are burning our own "Libraries of Alexandria." In the words of the comic strip character Pogo, "We have met the enemy, and he is us!"

Finally, I have recently started filling out the missing volumes by George Olah in my collection by buying them online. Each is stamped "discarded" from various libraries. Who decided that Olah is no longer worth keeping? What will we have left for the next generation?

William Boulanger
Champaign, Ill.



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