Today while walking through the library I passed the shelves where the Chemical Abstracts indices still sit. They don't appear to have been touched in some time - I certainly haven't disturbed them.
CA is the repository for abstracts of almost all the papers that bear on chemistry throughout the world's scientific literature, and for data on all the chemical compounds that are described in them. It's one of the largest compendia of reference data in the world, as you'd expect. For many years, it was available only as a print edition, because, well, everything was available only in a print edition.
Every five years a collective index would be issued, to great rejoicing. These included indices by author, by chemical formula, by compound name, and so on. I remember when the 10th index came out, which covered the 1977-1981 literature, so I guess I go back to the 9th edition, although I'd never had much need (or ability) to use it while it was current. The coverage of the 10th index, though, ran from a year when I knew little or no chemistry to a time when I'd finished my sophomore organic course and had some idea of what the papers it referenced were talking about.
The 11th came out while I was in graduate school, and man, was I glad to see it. The 10th had become rather ancient in the meantime, and my need for access to the literature had reached unheard-of levels as I wrestled with my PhD. Digging through the more recent volume-by-volume indices to catch up had become quite painful. But it in its turn began to show its age. The 12th collective index showed up after I'd been in industry for three years or so, and I was glad to see it as well. We had a library staff that would look things up for you, but I still found them no substitute for going down and digging around firsthand. I gave that edition a good workout, and I remember being quite distressed when the rows of softcover volumes disappeared for a while for binding.
But things changed. The 13th index, from 1992 to 1996, is the last one whose physical covers I ever opened, and I think that was only once or twice. The library here never even bothered to get it hardbound, and the big softcover volumes are slumped against each other on their shelves. I have never even seen a copy of the 14th index, and I wonder how many copies of next year's 15th will even be printed. Whether there will even be a hard-copy version of the 16th in 2012 is anyone's guess, but I'd be willing to bet against it.
What happened, naturally, was the machine that you're using to read this blog. Even while I was in graduate school, you could access Chemical Abstracts via a command-line interface through one of those rockin' 1200 baud modems, and I was the person in our research group designated as the high priest. There was one terminal in the library hooked up, with a special key to open the door. I still have copies of the manual pages somewhere in my files. I'm kind of surprised that I don't have the key as well, but they must have made sure that it was turned in.
The first time I used CAS Online, I felt as if I'd been given magical powers. Wildcards! Variable atoms and chain lengths! I talked everyone's ears off about the kind of searching that could be done, and as I recall, the big issue was convincing people that the online method differed not only in degree, but in kind. You could, of course, do things that were completely impossible to do with the print edition, a fact that is mostly appreciated now by people who are at least 40 years old. That is, people who have done it the old way. Fewer and fewer do, and good riddance to it.
If you'd parted the curtain of Time and shown me 2006 literature searching on a 2006 computer, I'd probably have fainted. Similarly, if you'd told me back in 1985 that I never would see the 14th CA Collective Index or any past it, I probably would have taken it as a prophecy of nuclear war. Something better happened instead.