University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Scientists in the Library

Volume II  · February 1947  ·  Number 2
Scientists in the Library

All scientists use libraries. Some are driven thither by technical requirements, some go to find prized materials, some seek the stimulation of ideas. Each person encounters in libraries that which he is most fitted to use; hence libraries are a common ground for all scientists.

Scientists are engaged in finding the general features of the world. Everyday observation leads to small-step information and notions; these combine into larger steps, and so onwards. The specialist is able to carve out such a small segment of the universe that he can explore it firsthand. But life is too short for him to cover much ground, unless he can also bring within his compass those materials and larger steps that others have set forth. In the end every man helps to build a pyramid, of which he himself has hewn only a few blocks of the hundreds of thousands that form it.

The method is nicely illustrated by the work of Charles Darwin. He himself says in his autobiographical sketch: "Science consists in grouping facts so that general laws or conclusions may be drawn from them." Some of his ability to accumulate facts Darwin credited to the examples of his contemporaries, the historians Buckle and Macaulay. "My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts."

The uses to which scientific records are put can be learned and understood from the history of science. For this reason it is important to have available some original volumes that contain the syntheses of great generalizations in the past. From them one learns how the human mind works, and how it arrives at great concepts and scientific laws. One learns this method not by psychological analysis of the scientist, but by intuition. Of course, much is learned from one's teachers and colleagues; their methods become one's own, whether one will or no. But books make teachers and colleagues of those long dead or far distant: through print their minds can interact with one's own.

But mere piling up of materials is of little consequence by itself. Like Darwin, every scientist starts from firsthand observations; sooner or later he formulates evidence for and against the generalization in view. "Everything about which I thought or read was made to bear directly on what I had seen." Without the hypothesis the materials are aimless, and will ordinarily be useless because invalidated.

Science now progresses by the efforts of hundreds of thousands of devotees, and the amassing of evidence can drown the mind in its masses. Not merely more materials for proofs and disproofs pile up, but the materials are apparently more fragmentary than ever. For specialization is the enemy of generalization, even though indispensable to it. So the library and its cooperating institutions furnish means of indexing and reviewing and abstracting these accumulations of knowledge.

With all its indexing, the library is still a hunting ground. Darwin describes how he "opened a notebook" on the subject of the origin of species twenty-two years before the publication of his eye-opening book. In our own day, D'Arcy Thompson, in his essays, Science and the Classics, sets forth directions for keeping these notebooks, one on each subject or hypothesis that is to be tested. Every item that bears on a subject in progress is noted, so that the investigator gleans from books and journals a concentrate derived from observations and experiments of hundreds or thousands of colleagues whom he, through printed pages, causes to serve him.

In my study, Physiological Regulations, I was engaged in finding whether patterns of animal function were similar in respect to many unit processes and many species. Of them I had made an extensive study of only three or four. But from numerous recorded investigations, I was able to glean observations and quantitative measurements that represented hundreds of man-years of work. They had to be ferreted from many volumes of otherwise extraneous materials. So I could arrive, by using the library as companion to the laboratory, at the top of a pyramid that I had not quarried and had only helped in small part to build.

When he enters a medical library or a chemical library, the visitor is impressed with the rows upon rows of technical treatises and journals. But in a smaller corner he will find a few shelves holding volumes that represent in distilled essences the great advances in understanding the universe. They are not such great advances as there will some day be, for large generalizations must grow from smaller ones. At every step, therefore, the library is the chief and indispensable store from which the fruits of cooperative accumulation may be harvested. Let no one forget the importance of recording the isolated fact, and let no one relax his effort to put the fact and all its relations into the great picture of the universe!