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January 9, 2003
Back in the Stacks
I don't want to give the impression that there are hundreds of gems buried among the papers that no one references. Sometimes no one references them because they're not worth very much, or because no one can get ahold of the actual article. I had a old reference turn up the other day from the local "Proceedings" journal of an obscure Egyptian university - I should have threatened our library staff with a photocopy request. You probably couldn't find it short of London; I seriously doubt that any reference library on this continent has a copy. Heck, you'd probably have trouble tracking it down in Egypt. No one will ever know if it's any good.
But most journal articles in chemistry just disappear from view, because they say what they have to say and get off the stage: "We made compound Z for the first time," or "This palladium catalyst is great when you have exactly the sort of starting material that we have," or "Sometimes this reaction works well, and sometimes, darn it all, it doesn't."
These aren't groundbreaking classics, but they're still valid work. And thanks to modern literature-searching tools, they'll be found whenever someone might really need them (if ever.) Some paper that sits composting quietly for years can suddenly turn out to be vital for another researcher who wasn't even born when it first appeared (I've been that researcher a couple of times myself.) At least twice in my career I've gone to copy a paper out of a bound volume of an old journal and realized that a few years before I'd copied the paper right next to it, for a completely different research project. Last time that happened, I looked at the next paper after that one, wondering if I'd need to come copy it a few years from now. (On closer inspection, I hoped not.)
I've always enjoyed being back in the wilderness of the bound journals in a large library. Of course, as time goes on, I can't help but notice that some of these journals that I can remember seeing seeing as new issues are now in the back storage room. Hmmm. You mean to say they've filled out this entire shelving unit with Journal of Organic Chemistry since I was reading it my senior year of college? Let's see, at this rate, it'll be out to. . .here by the time I retire. Hey, J. Alfred Prufrock measured out his life with coffee spoons; things could be worse.
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