Bang Those Robots’ Heads Together!


Ruston’s letter on “Literature Searching Aids,” C&EN, Nov. 17, indicates the terrible confusion which exists in the minds of many chemists and librarians.

The indexing project at Welch Medical Library, Johns Hopkins University, has been investigating the application of machines to the problems of medical documentation for approximately three years. Unfortunately, the present state of scientific literature is by no means rosy, as our Belgian friend would have us believe. This applies to the literature of chemistry as well as to the literature on literature searching. (Indeed, if he were sincerely interested in this latter problem he would find some amazing sources of information such as Library Science Abstracts, Chemical Literature, Library Literature, etc.) On the contrary, although the picture is somewhat better in chemistry than in the other sciences ‘(thanks to Chemical Abstracts), it does not mean there is no room for improvement. Can anyone deny that the clamor for “robots” developed precisely because the situation has at times appeared almost hopeless?

The press (including C&EN) is partly to blame for the anthropomorphic conception of machines one finds prevalent today, Machines are time savers. They are more efficient than man in repetitive operations, What all of us must do is to erase the conception of the machine as a “brain” (including computers) and, reconsidering the application of machines to this unrosy situation, learn how machines can facilitate our preparation and use of the literature, whether this be the compilation of indexes like CA or the searching of the literature. Machines may not “think” but then again we often confuse routine thinking with creative thinking. I believe we can already demonstrate that machines can facilitate present operations and perform “thinking” functions. Indeed, it is the machine that makes us really think and in so doing suggests more efficient ways of utilizing our human resources.

Finally, concerning the question, “Do results of research really become valueless by remaining buried in the literature?” If there is anything but a YES answer to this question then perhaps we should burn our libraries and the literature in them.

Baltimore, Md.