Searching a scientific reference: then and now

There is a marvelous editorial in the journal Current Science dated April 10th 2010. The editorialist describes how in the good old days he used to come to the library of the Indian Institute of Science and go from shelf to shelf looking for a reference and he describes the sense of “feeling” newly arrived journals which had a distinctive smell and touch. There is sea change today as all journals have gone electronic and can be accessed on the net as soon as they are published and with the “e pub ahead of print” revolution, even before the formal print publication.
It set off a train of memories for me as well. I remember the days of our thesis writing. The IPGMER , where I did my PG had a fairly decent library and the past journal issues were bound and well catalogued. The only problem was that it only went back to 1957 when it was founded. If we needed to consult anything before that, we had to go to one of the other libraries in the city. One of them was the Calcutta Medical Club library, which in those days was opposite the Medical College on Central Avenue. Here the library was musty and dusty, but the journals were available though often difficult to find.
Another library that we used was one maintained by one of the Pharmaceutical firms, East Indian Pharma if I remember correctly. This was in Bhawanipur, again dusty and musty but the journals were available and the attendants there were very helpful.
It seems like another life now, the methods we used to research any topic. There used to be fat volumes of Index Medicus, one for each month. This reprinted all the content pages of what were then called Indexed journals, ie indexed in Index Medicus. Nowadays of course, Pub med is the indexing authority that we all refer to. After you noted down (in longhand!) the articles you needed (remember there used to be no abstracts to make life more easy) you then considered where you might be able to find the specific journals. The more recent ones were often available in IPGMER. The older ones were in the other two libraries. But if the libraries did not subscribe to these journals, you had to write to the author for a reprint. It was costly, Rs 6.50, a tidy sum those days for an aerogramme and then a wait for the article to arrive if it did. Mostly the Europeans and Americans were prompt in sending the reprints, but Indians often did not bother to reply. One honourable exception was Dr Valiathan, probably one of the greatest clinician scientists of India who replied by return of post to me. He was then the Director of the Shree Chitra Institute in Trivandrum and I a humble PG student, but he found time to immediately reply to my request for a reprint.
We first saw the revolution that would completely change the way we researched at the British Council library in Kolkata where they were the first to acquire CDs which compressed the Index Medicus into one CD which also had the abstracts and were searchable. You had to write to the Librarian giving the search keywords and they gave you the printouts. I can’t remember whether they charged separately for it, probably not.
But very soon the internet came up and changed life forever. Research stopped being scrabbling among dusty volumes and going form one library to another and became a simple matter of typing key words in your laptop. And with the present trend of open access becoming more and more common, you don’t even need a subscription most of the time. And if you cannot access it for some reason, you can simply send an email anywhere to the world and get a pdf back next day at the latest.
Some may miss those good old days. I most certainly do not! I await the day when all the content in scientific journals will be free to access. Surely this will happen soon.


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