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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2003

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[Board accepted]

Low Stress Opportunity for Research Students to Explore Information Resources: Information Literacy for the Physical Scientist

Leah Solla
Chemistry Librarian
Cornell University


In 2001 I was asked to assume the coordination of a one-semester survey course called Information Literacy for the Physical Scientist. The course focused primarily on chemical information resources but was relevant to other physical sciences as well. The primary goal was to alert budding physical scientists to the extensive resources available to assist with their research, not the least their friendly librarians. Over three years the course has evolved in response to student feedback, the changing nature of information resources and my growing understanding of chemistry and teaching. Through a series of carefully prepared demonstrations and exercises, the students can begin the process of independent information research, invaluable for preparation of research proposals, experimental procedures, dissertations.


What does it mean to be literate in chemical information? The chemical literature has unique characteristics and search tools designed to meet the information needs of the working chemist. Chemical information and data are represented and searched bibliographically, numerically, mathematically, and visually. Both the oldest and the newest literature are highly valued. Methodologies and measured properties are extracted from the primary literature and compiled in specialized reference works. As chemical information lies at the heart of chemical research, a working chemist needs to have a thorough understanding of its organization and modes of access (Gould & Pearce 1991).

The American Chemical Society recognizes the importance of chemical information literacy in the ACS Committee on Professional Training (CPT) accreditation guidelines for higher education. "Students preparing for professional work in chemistry must learn to retrieve specific information from the enormous and rapidly expanding chemical literature. The complexity of this task is such that one can no longer easily acquire the necessary skills without some formal instruction" (American Chemical Society Committee on Professional Training 2003). The guidelines strongly recommend a dedicated course or integration into other core courses. In 1993 it was reported that 162 chemistry departments in the U.S. offered a separate course for chemical information instruction (Somerville 1998).

The Dedicated Course

Cornell University meets this recommendation through a one-semester course, Chem602. It is a pass/fail, one-credit course sponsored by the Cornell Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. The class meets one evening a week for 75 minutes in a computer classroom for hands-on instruction. The class is not required. The majority of those who sign up are first-year graduate students and senior undergraduates, primarily from chemistry and chemical engineering, but also physics, materials science, biochemistry, communication and education. The class is also open for drop-ins and specific topics usually attract additional participants.

Chem602 began in 1995 as an STN training course. At that time, the Science Technology Network was one of few online access points for science databases, and the primary online interface for Chemical Abstracts. The command language system is very complex and requires extensive training to use efficiently. As end-user interfaces developed and more resources became available online, Chem602 evolved into a general survey of chemistry-related information resources. I inherited the course in this form.

As I taught more classes and answered more reference questions, I realized that a resource-oriented survey didn't address specialized searching and resource evaluation. Chemists need to be able to complete comprehensive information searches on chemical compounds, conduct structure and reaction searches, use a variety of subject resources, and select appropriate resources for specific questions (Carr & Somerville 1997). Students need instruction organized around like resources, specific searching skills and common question types. With a whole semester of classes it is possible to organize the course around these natural groupings.

Class Topics

Class topics are based on the type of questions generally encountered during research and the type of data being sought. The series of fourteen lectures starts with an overview of the research process and the organization of information. The research process generates a sequence of information-rich communications, ranging from lab measurements to informal exchange with colleagues to published literature. Data from published literature are further compiled and summarized into secondary and tertiary resources (Maizell 1998). Students explore the different levels of literature as well as the concept of using controlled vocabularies to search them.

The second class addresses the variety of vocabularies used to identify unique chemical compounds. These vocabularies include standardized, common and proprietary nomenclatures, graphical representations, and numeric classification schemes. They enable chemists to communicate accurately about the 21+ million chemical compounds recorded in the literature (Chemical Abstracts Service 2003), and to ask complex chemical questions not readily expressed in words. Understanding these vocabularies and their translation is fundamental if one is to make effective use of the chemical literature.

Three classes covering search strategies for specific kinds of chemical data and methodologies follow the background lectures. Physical and chemical property data searching involves simple and precise queries and answers and students explore several data compilations and searching interfaces. Spectra are a more complex type of property data and the electronic interfaces allow for extensive analysis of results. Chemical reactions involve multiple compounds and properties over time. Searching on these variables is a complex operation and success depends on informed manipulation of the search criteria.

The next three lectures in the sequence cover subject-based literature resources in chemistry and the related physical and biochemical sciences. These classes explore in depth the controlled indexing and thesauri searching of abstracts more traditionally encountered in library bibliographic instruction. Cornell librarians who specialize in these subject areas teach the physics and biochemistry lectures.

Next follows a group of specialized searching techniques, including citation searching, patent searching, web searching, and a review of other fugitive resources. A large proportion of chemical research is proprietary and published only in patents. Most of the resources covered in the class are not available for free, but many useful resources on the web are, including professional society portals, chemical catalogs, and government sponsored data collections. Fugitive literature includes technical reports, dissertations and conference proceedings, other forms of primary literature of great value that are not well indexed and often hard to find. These classes are also taught by Cornell librarians expert in these techniques.

The course concludes with a look at current awareness, citation management, and an overview of services available in the Cornell University Library system, including the online catalog, accessing electronic resources and current awareness and bibliographic management tools.

Class Structure

Reflecting on the hectic schedule of graduate students and the conceptual distance of literature searching from the lab, I also realized that the course needed to be low stress and highly applicable to be useful and attractive to graduates and undergraduate majors. Lectures are rich with demonstrations and take a maximum of 30 minutes to review resources and searching methodologies. This timing corresponds well with students' attention span, as they are eager to try searching for themselves. The remaining 45 minutes of the class are spent working through hands-on exercises based on actual reference questions. Each class is a self-contained workshop to retain focus on the skill at hand and to allow for participation in selected topics if commitment to the full course is not possible. Regular attendance and completion of the exercises constitute the requirements for the credit.

The exercises are designed to demonstrate specialized features and compare coverage and usability of the relevant resources. They are the heart of the course, delivering the highest impact for both students and instructors. Students have the opportunity to experience the complexities and subtleties of the resources in mock real-life processes, with the assistance of the instructor at hand. Instructors can observe the students at work to offer assistance when needed and to gather feedback for course refinement. The work is readily completed in class and is not graded. The depth of answers, observation of the searching process by the instructor and class interactions indicate successful problem solving.

The classroom provides a computer for each student, arranged around the perimeter of the room. The lectures and demonstrations take place in the middle of the classroom, with screen projection for demonstrations. During the exercise period, the students move to the computers and the instructor moves around the middle and can readily observe the work of every student and provide one-on-one assistance. The students are fully engaged in the resources for the entire 75 minutes of each class. From watching the effect of a good searching trick by the instructor to working through carefully constructed exercises that lead through multiple facets of a resource, the students gain a thorough taste of chemical information searching. With some appropriate tools and experiences in their hands, further exploration can happen as research questions crop up in the students' own work and lives.

The Prepared Environment

As lifelong learners and explorers, researchers need to become comfortable with independent exploration of information resources beyond the scope of a class. Maximum independent learning and exploration can be facilitated by a combination of carefully prepared materials and in-class exploration time (Montessori 1949). In a "prepared environment" learning materials are designed to lead the learner to a concept and isolate error for self-correction. Class begins with a brief introduction of the learning tools, the instructor modeling appropriate use, followed by a substantial amount of time for students to explore the material on his or her own, under the helpful eye of the instructor. It is my goal to jump-start this process of independent exploration in the Chem602 environment for the students to continue in their own work.

Montessori also observed that students were more likely to retain information from a positive experience, and understand the importance of following through from a completed transaction (Montessori 1949). I have observed this effect in Chem602 as students come away from a class with comments like "I didn't know Beilstein could do that", Beilstein being an especially complex resource. It is important that the students enjoy the experience so they will be interested and willing to consult a resource in the future. The entire lesson and requirements for each class are completed within the class period to emphasize the complete and positive experience that does not place additional pressure on the students' busy schedules.

This version of a prepared environment has resulted in more attentive focus from the students during the introduction, increased ease in using the resources during the hands-on portion, more sophisticated questions from the students, and increased enjoyment in teaching the course. The students are armed with skills and tools to improve their research experience and a greater appreciation of the library. I am looking forward to new resources, new students and the continuing evolution of Chem602.


American Chemical Society Committee on Professional Training. 2003. Undergraduate Professional Education in Chemistry; Guidelines and Evaluation Procedures. Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society.

Carr, C. & Somerville, A.N. 1997. Coping with the Transformation of Chemical Information. In: Using Computers in Chemistry and Chemical Education (ed. By T.J. Zielinski & M.L. Swift), pp. 109-131. Washington DC: American Chemical Society.

Chemical Abstracts Service. 2003. The Latest CAS Registry Number and Substance Count. [Online]. Available: {} [April 15, 2003].

Gould, C.C. & Pearce, K. 1991. Information Needs in the Sciences: An Assessment. Mountain View, California: The Research Libraries Group.

Maizell, R.E. 1998. How to Find Chemical Information. New York, N.Y.: John Wiley & Sons.

Montessori, M. 1949. The Absorbent Mind. Madras: Theosophical Publishing House.

Somerville, A.N. 1998. Chemical Information Instruction in Academe: Recent and Current Trends. Journal of Chemical Information and Computer Science. 38(6): 1024-1030.


Carr, C. 2000. Teaching and Using Chemical Information: Annotated Bibliography, 1993-1998. Journal of Chemical Education 77(3): 412-422.

Division of Chemical Information of the American Chemical Society Education Committee. 2000. Teaching Chemical Information: Tips and Techniques. [Online]. Available: {} [April 15, 2003].

Division of Chemical Information of the American Chemical Society and the Chemistry Division of the Special Libraries Association. 2003. Clearinghouse for Chemical Information Instruction Materials (directed by G. Wiggins). [Online]. Available: {} [April 15, 2003].

Harris, H. 2003. Literature of Chemistry. In: The Journal of Chemical Education Chemical Education Resource Shelf. [Online]. Available: {} [April 15, 2003].

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