A brief discussion the other day on Twitter got me to thinking about the lost world of literature searching – back when everything was bound journals and paper. My whole grad school career took place in the pre-PDF world, and a good part of it was pre-CAS Online. So those of you from that era will well recall what it was like to search things in the 5-year Chemical Abstracts “Collective Index” volumes.
When I started out, the most recent of those was the 10th collective index, covering 1977-1981 literature. That got more and more painful to use, with constant recourse to the paper-bound updated index volumes, until the 11th CI showed up covering 1982-1986. So in my head the 11th was always “the new one”. I naturally spent an awful lot of time with the 9th and 10th CI sets. The 8th as well, although it was noticeably a bit smaller than the others, and once in a while I’d dip into the earlier ones. A couple of years into my first job in industry the 12th CI came out, and that’s the last one that I really used in hard copy and by the old methods. What old methods were those?
Well, finding an individual compound, in “Hey, has anyone made this?” mode generally involved hitting the Formula Index first, which gave you a confirmation of anything with that empirical formula existing (for one thing) and a look at what the CAS people had named it as. I suspected that their long-term goal was to name every organic compound as a derivative of methane, personally. What you’d find, though, was some root name that you could trust for various substituents (“3-chloro” or the like), but if you decided that you wanted to search a COOH substituent at some position, the name completely flipped around to prioritized that group. (I also suspected that the long-term goal of CAS was to name every carboxylate derivative with an aliphatic carbon next to it as a derivative of acetic acid). So you had to be ready to run a multi-pronged search to get your naming conventions down before heading into the other index volumes to look those up.
You could, of course, get abstract entries from just the Formula Index, but the Name/Chemical Substance Index volumes would give you a look at all those derivatives as well (as long as they fit the same naming scheme), and that could be valuable for a sort of primitive substructure/derivative search. Either way, you’d be sent back to the actual abstract volumes to see a one-paragraph summary that would give you the literature reference itself and an idea of whether you wanted to go look it up. I used to generate all sorts of pieces of scrap paper with those abstract citations on them while rooting through the indices, then I’d take them in order as I worked through the bound abstract volumes, noting down the actual journal citations for the ones that seemed worthwhile. There are surely some of those in my oldest paper files, which I saved for just that reason (all the other paper files went away some years ago, in oddly cathartic sessions down by the recycling bins).
Once you had the journal citations, it was back into the shelves of the chemistry library. Duke’s was quite good, and had a lot of full runs of journals going back to God-knows-when. What strikes me, looking back, is the amount of page-flipping. All those index volumes, all those abstract volumes, all those bound journal volumes, flip, flip, flip, flip. That was the sound of a scientific library – people flipping pages looking for papers. When I found a good one, I’d haul it up to the photocopier, plug in the little counter thingie that charged copies to our research group, and do a motion that became automatic over the years. Push the page of the bound volume’s paper up to the edge of the copier glass, hit the button, generate a page, turn the volume around end-to-end and push the second page up against the edge, hit the button, flip and rotate and push and flip and rotate. This, of course, generated a stack of copied pages that alternated being right-side-up and upside-down page by page, so you’d take the stack off the side of the copier and rearrange them before stapling them together.
Fancier copiers had a “bound volume” mode, with a line marked towards the middle of the platen glass for you to put the page-break valley on. It would then do a double-scan, first one side of the divide and then the other, which certainly saved time. It was set for a full-sized journal volume, so if you were copying off something from a smaller-format publication like Chemische Berichte there would be a big margin of black around each copied page. Sometimes these black margins would be enlivened by ghostly photocopies of your own fingers holding things in place.
The bound volumes, naturally, were supposed to be returned to the shelves. But there were always some piled up in the copier room (and perhaps various other flat surfaces around the place as well), so you could well find a gap in the procession of volumes when you went to look something up, and would have to wander through the library looking for it. I did a lot of wandering around in there anyway, because I found some of the volumes interesting from a historical point of view. For example, I never recall finding many useful citations for my own research in the Anales de la Real Sociedad Española de Física y Química, but it was unnerving to see the size of its bound volumes on the shelf drastically shrink in size when the Spanish Civil War began in 1936, ceasing publication altogether for a while in 1938 as I recall. Then when things picked up again, you opened the first resumed volume to be greeted by a frontspiece of Francisco Franco and a shining cross, in case you had any doubt about who won the war. Similarly, the numerous German journals showed the strain of the Second World War as it went on, becoming smaller, thinner, and printed on increasingly nasty grades of paper. I recall an issue of Die Chemie, the wartime name for Angewandte Chemie, with a message from Albert Speer (signed simply “Speer”) printed on the cover, all about production goals and the like. The German journals tended to lurch to a halt during 1945 – of course they did – and only resumed, in many cases, in 1947.
As for Chemical Abstracts, by the time the 13th Collective Index came out for the literature up to 1996, I was using SciFinder instead of rooting through the paper volumes, and (like the rest of the chemical world with such access) I never looked back. There was a 14th CI, and I may have seen that in some library somewhere, but I’m not sure. And there was even a 15th in hard copy, a quaint and forlorn effort by that time. I’m positive that I’ve never seen one, and I wonder how many of them even exist. And that was that – the paper form of CA disappeared in 2009, and there was thus no 16th Collective Index at all. Who’d have thought?