Adventures in the library

OK, I admit it — I'm a library junkie. The first paying job I ever had was in a library. I love libraries and books; and this enthusiasm has given me an edge in my work — or, at least, made it more enjoyable.

Science isn't all done in the lab, or (for astronomers) at the telescope. A large part of the work is finding out what other people have done already. That means digging information out of the library.

The neat thing about library work is discovering things you didn't know existed. While you're looking up one thing, you come across all sorts of interesting other things. That's why computerized search tools are a very poor substitute for being able to browse shelves and turn the pages of books and journals. It's often the things you weren't looking for that turn out to be more useful than the ones you went after in the first place. A good example of this phenomenon was related over a century ago by the famous physicist P. G. Tait.

A lot of drudgery is required; but it's repaid with unexpected gems. Some of these are merely curiosities; others provide a look into the cooperative social activity we call “science”. A few turn out to offer insight into the scientific problem at hand: learning about green flashes.

If you're a professional scientist, you're familiar with this sort of thing already. If you're not, you might be interested to see how a professional scientist works. Here are some “war stories” from the library front — tales of the unexpected, of surprise and delight, of unforeseen connections among things that nobody would have thought were related. James Burke, eat your heart out!

Finding a classic, with a bonus

How a book I'd sought for decades turned up unexpectedly — and proved to be more useful than I had any right to expect.

Help from strangers

How e-mail paved the way to enlightenment, and other questions.

Manuscripts and proposals

Why some things don't get published, or done.

Why can't you find it in the library?

Why some papers are impossible to locate, unless you're lucky.

Why can't you find it in the library? [Part II]

Why some papers are impossible to locate, until you forget you already looked.

Why can't you find it in the library? [Part III]

Why some papers are impossible to locate, if they were published in France.

Why what you find in the library may not make the cut

Some cutting remarks about physicists.

Why can you find it in the library in two different forms?

A “curious arrangement” revealed.

I'm a stranger here myself

Do you know where you are? Or where you're reading about?

Too many Friedrich Wilhelms!

Who some of them are, and why.

Not everything happens in the library, though

Adventures in the world of commerce.


Finally, special thanks to all the librarians, both at San Diego State University and elsewhere, who have made most of this work possible!

© 1999, 2001, 2003 – 2007 Andrew T. Young


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