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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Winter 2001

Book Reviews

Library Handbook for Organic Chemists

David Flaxbart
Mallet Chemistry Library
University of Texas, Austin

Poss, Andrew J. Library Handbook for Organic Chemists. NY: Chemical Publishing Co., 2000. ISBN 0-82060-361-9. $64.95 (paper).
Organic chemists are taught early on about the singular importance of the field's scholarly literature, which is one of the largest and most complex of any discipline. In spite of the instructional efforts of libraries, information-finding skills (and prejudices) are generally passed on from professor to graduate student, from senior chemist to junior chemist. Since many of the time-honored, retrospective resources exist only in print format, organic chemists tend to be more familiar with and dependent on their physical libraries than most other scientists are nowadays. This bibliocentric culture is reflected in a new guidebook written by a chemist with Honeywell International.

The author states in his preface that this book is "an effort to bridge the gap between the needs of the research scientist and the predicaments of today's libraries." Many working chemists, particularly in industry, do not have ready access to the full breadth of chemistry reference sources: their libraries may be small, outdated, underfunded, or even nonexistent. This handbook attempts to list the most important sources a chemist should use in a literature search. Twenty-seven sources are arranged alphabetically in the main section of the book. In addition, there are brief overviews of categories such as journals, patents, reviews, dissertations, Internet resources, and dictionaries. Each entry provides basic background on the title's arrangement, scope, and use, including in some cases a full table of contents or index summary. Sample entries from some sources are reproduced as illustrations. A "Search Orientation Table" in the front of the book groups the titles according to what questions they might answer, and this table would be the starting point for the reader. The last section is a topical index of all review articles that appeared in the journals Tetrahedron and Synthesis from 1972 to 1997.

The book includes most of the standard print reference sources in organic chemistry, which are described in varying levels of detail: Beilstein, Theilheimer's, Rodd's, Houben-Weyl, Heilbron, Patai, Fieser's, and Kirk-Othmer. Well-known one-volume handbooks, such as the CRC, Lange's, and the Merck Index, are also present. (Organic chemists tend to identify handbooks and series by the names of their original editors, which lends the field a kind of old-boys-club air.)

But there are significant problems in the presentation. Bibliographic data on the titles -- such as author/editor, date, edition, publisher, and ISBN -- are completely lacking, making it difficult to determine the exact publication being described. Some entries, despite lack of date, clearly describe superseded editions. Titles are misspelled (e.g. Organic Syntheses is repeatedly referred to as Organic Synthesis, a common but annoying mistake that defeats many a befuddled library patron). While the author helpfully provides Library of Congress call numbers for most titles, he is apparently unaware that many libraries alter these numbers or use other classification systems. The outdated review index seems pointless, since there are many other sources of review articles beyond these two journals.

The entries often include mention of CD-ROM or online versions, primarily those on Dialog and STN, but this guide is not intended as an online searching aid. And while the author makes an attempt to include web-based resources, this coverage is cursory at best and excludes a number of important sites. Most astonishing, however, is the failure to include major online tools such as Chemical Abstracts' SciFinder and the Beilstein Crossfire systems, which have become key resources for organic chemists and students during the last few years. The author fails even to mention computerized structure searching, which is a vital point of access to organic information. These omissions seriously compromise the usefulness of the book.

While the Library Handbook for Organic Chemists is well-meaning and occasionally helpful, it doesn't provide a complete enough picture of the literature of organic chemistry in all its complexity. It contains a number of inaccuracies and misconceptions, and its omission of some titles and newer editions makes one think that it was compiled from the holdings of a single library. Its neglect of the new generation of databases and online services makes it seem behind the times. The sources included certainly deserve attention and continued use by chemists and librarians, but there's much more to the picture than this book lets on.

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