Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Summer 1999

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Spotlight on the Subject Knowledge of Chemistry Librarians: Results of a Survey

Christopher Hooper-Lane
Arthur Lakes Library
Colorado School of Mines
Golden, CO 80401


A survey of academic chemistry librarians concerning how they obtain and maintain subject knowledge found that 86% took college level chemistry courses, 64% have a science degree, and 43% have a degree in chemistry. To continue their education, respondents spend an average of 4 hours and 42 minutes each week on professional development activities such as scanning core science journals, subscribing to science discussion lists, surfing the World Wide Web, attending lectures, conferences, and workshops, and personal contact with academic faculty and scientists. Of these activities, discussion lists, personal contact, and scanning core journals were the most frequently utilized resource types. A ranking of the top resources exploited by the respondents is also included.


"The special librarian has specialized subject knowledge appropriate to the business of the organization or the client"
- SLA's Competencies for Special Librarians of the 21st Century

Much to the surprise of the organizers and presenters, the session entitled Chemistry and Chemical Librarianship for Non-Chemists at the '99 Special Libraries Association attracted a jam-packed standing-room-only crowd. Many of us in the room, however, suspected this session would be popular. Science librarianship without comprehensive specialized subject knowledge is challenging, if not formidable, and few librarians of sci-tech libraries can describe their understanding in the sciences as comprehensive (Mount 1985, Storm & Wei 1994). Most would agree that having and maintaining subject knowledge is an invaluable component of librarianship. The library literature is peppered with articles reporting the benefits of employing librarians with subject expertise for all facets of science librarianship (see Herubel 1991, Stuart & Drake 1992, Wiggins 1998, Williams 1991). Researchers have also reported that sci-tech librarians with a grounding in science tend to receive more professional respect from clients, thus enhancing the library image, and have less job anxiety and burnout (Hallmark 1998, Slutsky 1991). Stuart and Drake (1992) posit a possible severe consequence of hiring non-science librarians:

Scientists and engineers often presume that if the librarian has no grounding in the discipline there is no personal knowledge base to aid the researcher and no common frame of reference, [therefore] reliance on librarians will not occur if there is no perceived benefit. The individual involved in research will acquire information from [other] proven sources.
Those affiliated with the field of chemistry fully understand the importance of knowing the subject. The integration of chemistry research and the chemistry literature, or as Krieger (1994) puts it in a recent Chemical and Engineering News piece "the growing interconnectedness of laboratory research activities with molecular modeling, computational chemistry, and molecular analysis, database searching, and general information retrieval" exacerbates the need for us to understand the core terminology and principles of chemistry and keep up with the current research of the field -- an impossible task considering the nearly three quarters of a million or so new articles, patents, reports and other documents published annually in the field of chemistry.

SLA's Competencies for Special Librarians of the 21st Century (1996) provides three practical examples of how we can attain and maintain subject knowledge: (1) obtain a subject degree at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, (2) monitor and scan core journals and other key sources, and (3) take additional courses, workshops, etc. in subjects related to their host organization. The purpose of this paper is to shed some light on how and to what extent librarians in the field of chemistry employ these three tactics to ensure competency as a special librarian.


A short survey was designed to determine the academic backgrounds of chemistry librarians and identify the resources they use, and the time they spend on these resources, to keep up with the scientific/chemistry fields. A questionnaire was mailed to sixty-seven librarians in United States academic institutions. Individuals were identified through campus web sites, scanning of relevant mailing lists, and Who's Who in Special Libraries (SLA membership directory). Of the sixty-seven, thirty-five usable questionnaires were returned, a response rate of 52.2 percent. Data was coded and analyzed using Microsoft Excel.

The questionnaire included personal questions to obtain the respondent's library position, the highest level of education in the sciences, and the years experience in a science/technology (sci-tech) library, as well as questions to illuminate the respondent's weekly patterns (during the academic year) of continuing education in the sciences. Respondents were asked to record and estimate the amount of time per week they spent keeping informed of current chemistry topics (research, bibliographic products, etc.) using print, electronic, and other scientific sources. The questionnaire also instructed the respondents to list and rank the print and electronic sources they consistently perused to stay current in chemistry topics.

Findings & Discussion


The distribution of respondents by library position and years of experience in sci-tech librarianship is shown in Table 3. By no means a formal scientific analysis, this study was designed to examine a cross-section of library professionals in the field. Responses were received from individuals representing a variety of library positions: chemistry or physical science library directors, chemistry librarians, science bibliographers, and reference librarians with chemistry department liasion responsibilites. The sci-tech experience of the respondents ranged from new to the profession to three years (25.7 % of the respondents), four to eleven years (28.6%), twelve to twenty years (25.7%), to twenty-one plus years (20.0%).

Academic Background in Chemistry

Few would disagree that the best way to get a grounding in science is to get a degree in it. One of the primary issues in science librarianship involves the academic background we bring to the job. The scarcity of librarians with science degrees continues to concern the information profession. Mount (1985) found that half of librarians in the sci-tech libraries of sixteen colleges did not have degrees in the sciences. A decade later, Liu and Wei (1993) reported that nearly two-thirds (62.7%) of sci-tech librarians at both the University of California (nine campuses) and California State University (twenty campuses) did not possess an academic science background. Results from this survey, however, indicate that chemistry librarianship might be in better shape (see Figure 1 and Table 4). Although the responses varied from no science coursework in college to a Ph.D. in chemistry, nearly two-thirds (63%) have a degree in one of the science disciplines, and ninety-four percent had at least some college-level coursework in the sciences. As expected, the numbers are not quite as impressive when looking at the respondents' backgrounds in chemistry (see Figure 2 and Table 4). Although eighty-six percent of the respondents have had at least some college chemistry coursework, only forty-three percent received a degree in chemistry and less than half of these were at the graduate level. Stuart and Drake (1992) propose that we have three alternatives to satisfy this gap: (1) continue training librarians without science or engineering degrees, (2) hire graduates with chemistry degrees to provide subject specific information to clientele or (3) train scientists to do a better job of finding information for themselves.

Time Spent on Continuing Education in Chemistry/Science

It is often stated that the shelf life of a college degree is three to five years; if true, we need to continue our learning through an array of formal and informal channels regardless of our academic backgrounds. The second part of the survey concerned the amount of time spent per week keeping up with the field using traditional sources (journals, personal contact, classes) and electronic sources (discussion lists, World Wide Web). Table 1 summarizes the responses received relating to the types of resources used and the average time per week spent on these sources.

Table 1 - Source types and time commitment (average per week per respondent)
for scientific/chemical information
Source Type Average time (percent)
Discussion Lists 72.4 minutes (25.6)
Personal Contact 69.0 minutes (24.4)
Science/Chemistry Journals 56.0 minutes (19.8)
WWW Resources 55.2 minutes (19.5)
Classes or Lectures 13.1 minutes (4.6)
Other 16.7 minutes (5.9)

Overall, respondents spent on average 282 minutes (four hours and forty-two minutes) per week keeping up with chemistry/science topics. The electronic discussion list was the top resource type used. Respondents averaged one hour and twelve minutes each week, more than one quarter of the total time, reading and corresponding to an electronic discussion list. Personal contact with scientists/faculty was next with an average of 69 minutes per week, followed by browsing/reading the science journals (56 minutes), World Wide Web resources (55 minutes), and taking classes or attending lectures (13.1 minutes).

Aside from the astounding amount of time spent keeping current in the field, nearly five hours a week, the popularity and significance of the electronic sources is quite notable. Respondents spend more than two hours a week on discussion lists or the web specifically for scientific information. Monty and Warren-Wenk (1994) suggest reasons why the ranking turned out the way it did. For one, electronic sources (and personal contact) can be tapped at the convenience of the user. When the need arises, subscribers can satisfy the information need by distributing a query on a discussion list or surfing the web. The discussion list also allows for feedback, coinciding with Stevan Harnad's (1991) lament "the written medium is hopelessly out of synch with the thinking mechanism [for its inability to] support the requisite rounds of feedback, in tempo giusto." Certainly, convenience and feedback contribute to the popularity of personal contact also -- an information need can be met just by picking up the phone. Discussion lists also allow for cross-fertilization among many fields from a world wide audience. A good example is CHMINF-L, a forum for professionals at all levels in academia (librarians, students, faculty), business, government, and others interested in chemical information, thus providing a greater wealth of knowledge drawn from its wide spectrum of participants. A final reason for the emergence of the electronic resources may be cost, or lack thereof. Many of the traditional avenues such as conference attendance, journal subscriptions, and coursework require institutional support (financial and/or release time). Discussion lists and mining the World Wide Web reduces the reliance on this type of support.

Despite the popularity of the electronic sources, the age old process of monitoring and scanning the journal literature continues to be an established method to keep atop the field of chemistry.  Respondents, on average, spent nearly an hour (56 minutes) each week reading or scanning three different science journals.  However, the range of responses varied greatly: one respondent reported spending four hours per week on seven different science journals, whereas several (ten) reported that they simply do not have time to read science journals.  Other traditional means of keeping up with the subject included attending classes/lectures or conferences/workshops.  The average respondent attended one fifty-minute class per month (generally consisting of sitting in on a class on a specific topic or a talk given by a guest speaker).  Conferences and workshops comprised the Other category with eighty-six percent of the respondents attending at least one chemistry-related conference or workshop in 1998.

Sources for Continuing Education in Chemistry

The second part of the survey was designed to allow respondents to list the top resources they use on a consistent basis (weekly) to self-educate in the field of chemistry. Table 2 is a ranking of the discussion lists, science journals, and conferences/workshops attended.

Table 2 - List of sources by percentage of the respondents who use that source

Electronic Discussion Lists (percent) Journals Sources (percent)
CHMINF-L (60.0)
STS-L (33.3)
PAMnet (30.0)
Local lists (20.0)
Science (63.3)
C & EN (53.3)
Nature (43.3)
Scientific American (23.3)
J. of Chem. Education (20.0)
J. of the ACS (16.7)
New Scientist (16.7)
American Scientist (10.0)
Science News (10.0)
J. of Chem. Information (10.0)
Conferences/Workshops (percent)
SLA Annual (45.7)
Database Workshops (31.4)
ACS National Meeting (28.5)
Nat. Chem. Inf. Symp. (14.2)
ACS Regional Meeting (8.5)

CHMINF-L, the {Chemical Information Sources Discussion List} was the top discussion list by a wide margin. Three out of five respondents subscribe to CHMINF-L, which provides a platform to obtain answers to chemical information questions and keep up with new and traditional information products and reference sources in chemistry. It is quite clear to subscribers that contributors to this list include some of the best chemistry librarians and chemical information specialists in the world. One can argue that CHMINF-L alone may be the reason why respondents spent more time on discussion lists than any other type of resource. STS-L, the discussion list maintained the {Science & Technology Section} of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) of the American Library Association (ALA), was a distant second with one-third of the respondents reading or contributing to this list. PAMnet, sponsored by the {Physics-Astronomy-Mathematics (PAM) Division} of the Special Libraries Association also garnered nearly one-third of the responses. And finally, twenty percent of the respondents noted that they subscribe to local lists (i.e., lists limited by department, institution, or in some geographic way).

Three weekly news journals were clear favorites and dominated the responses. Eighty-four percent of the respondents who say they scan journals listed one of these three as their top journal. Science, published by AAAS, and Chemical and Engineering News, published by the American Chemical Society (ACS), attracted the readership of more than half of the respondents (63.3% and 53.3%, respectively). Not far behind was the British publication {Nature} with 43.3 percent. Other notable journals that had at least ten percent readership (see Table 2) included: Scientific American, the Journal of Chemical Education, Journal of the American Chemical Society, New Scientist, {American Scientist}, Science News, and the Journal of Chemical Information and Computer Sciences.

Seventy-seven percent of the respondents attended a chemistry-related conference or workshop in 1998. Of these, sixty percent attended the annual conference of the Special Libraries Association, thirty-seven percent attended an ACS National Meeting, nineteen percent attended the National Chemical Information Symposium, and eleven percent attended an ACS Regional Meeting. In addition, nearly one third of the total respondents (31.4%) attended at least one of the many chemistry/science database workshops (either STN, Beilstein, ACS-SciFinder Scholar, or DIALOG).

It is interesting to note that although respondents on average surfed the web nearly an hour each week (55.2 minutes) to keep atop the chemistry field, most were hesistent to list the web sites they consistently exploit. An explanation could be that the respondents press into service any one of a number of web sites depending on the information they need. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of good, yet disparate, chemistry web sites, thus making it very difficult to select or recall the ones that are often used. {ChemWeb}, the global web club for chemistry researchers produced by ChemWeb Inc., and ACS's ChemCenter were the only two web sites included on more than one of the returned questionnaires. Both of these provide comprehensive information resources for chemical research and communication via electronic publishing, databases, and scientific forums.


In a recent op-ed piece, Darlene Weingand (1998) postulates that we live in "a society where success is increasingly predicated on access to appropriate information -- and the means of access also continue to evolve. Such a dynamic environment requires that continuing education be held as a requirement for ongoing competence...The library's customers have the right to expect that library staff are competent, current, and customer-service oriented." This study confirms that many librarians affiliated with the field of chemistry act as if they believe this statement. On average, respondents expended twelve percent of the work week on some form of self-education in chemistry -- an hour each day spent tapping into discussion lists, monitoring journals, surfing the web, or attending a lecture or class, specifically to assure they have the subject knowledge to be competent at their jobs. Taking into consideration the complexities and geometric growth of scientific information, is this enough?


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Table 3 - Respondent Position and Background (n=35)
Position type Number of Respondents (percent)
Chemistry/Science Librarian 11 (31.4)
Library Director/Head 8 (22.8)
Asst. Director/Coord. 6 (17.1)
Chemistry Liaison (Reference) 4 (11.4)
Bibliographer/Subject Specialist 4 (11.4)
Other 4 (11.4)
Experience in sci/tech librarianship
0-3 9 (25.7)
4-7 5 (14.3)
8-11 5 (14.3)
12-20 9 (25.7)
21+ 5 (14.3)
Other 2 (5.7)

Table 4 - Respondent academic background (n=35)

[Chart: Academic background in science]

[Chart: Academic background in chemistry]

Academic background in science Number of Respondents (percent)
None 2 (5.7)
Some college coursework 11 (31.4)
B.A./B.S. degree 9 (25.7)
Some graduate study 0 (0)
M.A./M.S. degree 8 (22.8)
Ph.D. level coursework 1 (2.9)
Ph.D. degree 4 (11.4)
Academic background in chemistry
None 5 (14.3)
Some college coursework 15 (42.9)
B.A./B.S. degree 6 (17.1)
Some graduate study 2 (5.7)
M.A./M.S. degree 3 (8.6)
Ph.D. level coursework 1 (2.9)
Ph.D. degree 3 (8.6)


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