Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Spring 1998

Changing Roles for Science & Technology Librarians As Reflected in the History of Engineering Index

Daryl C. Youngman
Chair of Science Libraries
Kansas State University
Manhattan, Kansas


The role of the science & technology librarians has evolved over more than a century. The first members of our profession were valued primarily for their clerical services. Patron service today involves the use of a broad spectrum of complex information tools, coupled with the librarian's understanding of the literature, the research process and specific patron needs. The history of Engineering Index, beginning in 1884 and continuing to the present, provides a context for examining how the practice of user service in science and technology libraries has changed over a period of more than a century. While the goal of excellent information service has remained a constant, the nature of the tools and the role of the librarian has changed markedly.


The delivery of high-quality information services to the patron group is, and always has been the core mission of any science and technology reference unit, and it is difficult to imagine this changing in the future. At the close of the twentieth century, we have at our disposal a selection of more powerful reference tools than at any time in the past. Many of us are caught up in the whirl of rapidly-changing technologies, and it is easy to forget that the reference tools and service practices we now have are, in fact, the product of decades of development.

Engineering Index is a primary reference tool for science and technology libraries, and one familiar to most in the profession. The fact that is has existed, in various forms, since 1884 provides a context in which to examine the development of reference tools and changes in user service practices across the decades. As Engineering Index developed and changed over the years, so has the role of the library professional. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, indexing of engineering literature was a new concept. The precursor of Engineering Index consisted of highly-selected notes on a small body of literature. At about that same time, technical libraries began to come into their own, with the librarians of that day functioning primarily as clerks. Today, the successful conduct of technical research is dependent upon successful interaction among skilled researchers, library professionals with a palette of sophisticated information skills, and comprehensive information tools such as COMPENDEX Web / Ei Village.

The Early Years

Samuel Butler Johnson was a Civil Engineering professor at Washington University in St. Louis in 1884 when he involved himself in a work that has become a primary information resource for science and technology libraries. Realizing a need for indexing the major engineering literature of the day, Johnson began his "Index Notes" which first appeared in the October, 1884 issue of the Journal of the Association of Engineering Societies (Hannum 1930). These "notes" included abstracts selected from less than one hundred journals. The principles governing the initial "Index Notes" were (Engineering Information, Inc. 1984):

It is from this beginning that Engineering Index soon developed into a form that would be familiar to many technical librarians today. In 1892 an eight-year cumulation of the "Index Notes" was compiled into Descriptive Index to Current Engineering Literature. This work can still be found on the shelves of many research libraries.

The latter years of the nineteenth century were also a time of great development for the profession of librarianship. In 1873 the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) acted on the need to create a technical library (Mount 1982). The approach to the development of the collection for that library reads much like a modern collection-development plan, but the role of the librarian, as was all too typical for that time, is described as that of a clerk or secretary. In 1877 the American Institute of Mining Engineers (AIME) established a library, and in 1885 the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers followed suit. In each of these instances, the focus was on the collection, and not on the librarian as an active participant in the research process. This situation was soon to change as librarians moved into expanded roles. That change has continued and accelerated as we approach the twenty-first century.

By the 1880's the ASCE library was offering what would today be viewed as fee-based reference services, and in a short while, several hundred searches per year were being conducted by the librarians (Mount 1982). Similar developments occurred in other society libraries, and in technical libraries such as the John Crerar Library in Chicago, which opened in 1896. Librarians of that day must have felt a future shock similar to that experienced by many in the profession today. By the turn of the twentieth century, technical librarianship was expanding its role in parallel to the development of reference tools like Engineering Index.

Defining User Service

1918 was a landmark year for technical librarianship. In that year, Engineering Index joined Engineering Societies Library (ESL) in the Carnegie-endowed United Engineering Center building in New York City (Bissell 1969). By this time, Engineering Index was being published as a regular annual volume, and four compilation volumes had been published. Over ten thousand abstracts were being printed each year (Engineering Information, Inc. 1984). This large and growing resource was being put to good use by librarians who had grown professionally far beyond their early clerical roles. During this time ESL librarians were doing several hundred searches each year, an early SDI service was available, translations of technical literature were being made, and library users were requesting nearly ten thousand photocopies per year. (One imagines what the "photostatic" process of that time was like.)

Librarians continued to enhance their skill sets with the 1928 introduction of the Ei Card Service. Subscribers to this service received, on a daily or weekly basis, abstracts selected against a profile built from over 200 subject classes in engineering (Bissell 1969). Librarians assumed an active role in assisting researchers to obtain the results they needed without pulling down "false hits". Ei continued this service under various names until 1975 (when the cards were made obsolete by computerized services). Today, librarians routinely provide similar profile development and maintenance services for a variety of SDI-type products.

Expanding Information Horizons

Engineering Index, Inc. continued to develop new information services to meet the needs of the growing technical community. In the post-World War II period, both Engineering Index and the library profession participated in the tremendous explosion of technical information. In 1954 the one-millionth Engineering Index abstract was published, and in 1962, monthly issues were introduced to meet the increased demand for currency of information.

Evidence of the increasingly active role of librarians in the research process is seen in the growing number of information tools, including Engineering Index, that were being used for information service to the technical disciplines. (Johnson 1959; Jenkins 1962). In Johnson's day, librarians and engineers were faced with a dearth of technical reference sources. By the 1960's librarians routinely assisted patrons in choosing an appropriate resource as part of most reference interactions.

As the sixties came to a close, librarians continued to expand their roles as they embraced computer technology. COMPENDEX was first issued on magnetic (mainframe) computer tape in 1969, and the age of "computer-assisted" reference was begun (Engineering Index, Inc. 1984). With over five thousand new records released each month, COMPENDEX challenged librarians to develop reference skills that would make full use of the capabilities of this resource. In 1973 online access to COMPENDEX became available through commercial vendors such as (then) Lockheed DIALOG and ORBIT, creating a new realm of librarianship that the "Secretary of the Society and Librarian" of the ASCE could never have imagined in 1875. (Mount 1982). The specialized search skills and knowledge of the workings of specific databases required for effective mediated online searching mandated that the working relationships between technical librarians and researchers become closer than ever before.

The Future Arrives

Engineering Index in the eighties became available in a format that appeared to be very adaptable to self-use. The first CD-ROM version was released in 1985, covering five years of data (Hutcheson 1998). However, as the databases and the search engines became more sophisticated, librarians found themselves intervening more, not less, in the instruction and use of this and other electronic information tools (Youngman 1989). In 1995, the introduction of Engineering Information Village, delivered via the web, created a global village model of technical information service. In addition to the traditional indexing and abstracting, links to world-wide-web sites, access to engineering technical experts, and a document delivery service make Engineering Information Village a very comprehensive information resource. Librarians are already assuming new roles in helping patrons effectively utilize the many possibilities of this service.


Engineering Index has been a primary information tool for technical librarians for over a century. During those years it has grown from a small collection of index notes to a tremendous information resource available in print, online, CD-ROM and web-based versions. In that same period, reference librarians have expanded their role from that of a clerk to one of an advisor, strategist and instructor on the information team. Science and technology librarians are continuing to earn the respect of their patrons, and it seems certain that the future will see further development of the role of librarians and of tools such as Engineering Index.


This article could not have been written without the resources, both current and historical, provided by Engineering Information, Inc (Ei). Ann Hutcheson, Manager of Information Resources for Ei., deserves special thanks for her assistance, as do many of the author's former colleagues at Olin Library, Washington University in St. Louis, where Engineering Index was conceived.


Bissell, Thomas A. 1969. The Engineering Index Story (1884 - 1969). Engineering Index, New York.

Engineering Information, Inc. 1984. The Engineering Index Annual 1984. 83(I): ix-xx.

Grattidge, Walter, & Creps, John E. Jr. Information Systems in Engineering. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology 13: 297-333.

Hannum, J.E. 1930. History of the Engineering Index. Engineering Index, New York.

Hutcheson, Ann [ahutches@ei.org] "RE: History of Engineering Index" Private e-mail message to Daryl Youngman [dyou@ksu.edu]. 7 April, 1998.

Jenkins, Frances Briggs. 1962. Science Reference Sources, Third Edition. Illini Union Bookstore, Champaign, Illinois.

Johnson, Irma. 1959. Selected Books and Journals in Science and Engineering. Second Edition. The Technology Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Landau, Herbert B. 1983. Evolution of a Secondary Service to and Information Supermarket. Online Review 7 (5): 407-12.

Malinowsky, H. Robert. 1976. Science and Engineering Literature, Second Edition. Libraries Unlimited, Littleton, Colorado.

Mount, Ellis. 1982. Ahead of It's Time: The Engineering Societies Library, 1913-80. Linnet Books, Hamden, Connecticut.

Mount, Ellis. 1976. Guide to Basic Information Sources in Engineering. Halstead Press, New York.

Youngman, Daryl C. Tools for Decision Support: An Overview of Online Database Searching and Optical Disc Technologies. Center for the Study of Data Processing Working Papers Series. 2 (9) Washington University, St. Louis, 1989.


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