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!
How a book I'd sought for decades turned up unexpectedly — and proved to be more useful than I had any right to expect.
How e-mail paved the way to enlightenment, and other questions.
Why some things don't get published, or done.
Why some papers are impossible to locate, unless you're lucky.
Why some papers are impossible to locate, until you forget you already looked.
Why some papers are impossible to locate, if they were published in France.
Some cutting remarks about physicists.
A “curious arrangement” revealed.
Do you know where you are? Or where you're reading about?
Who some of them are, and why.
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
If you have comments about these pages, please let me know.