Chemical Information Sources/Deep Background Reading

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Dictionaries, Encyclopedias, Treatises, Monographs, and Other Books

Introduction[edit | edit source]

The works discussed in this chapter will not provide very up-to-date information about a topic. Instead, they will cover the most important developments in the discipline of chemistry, with various approaches, depending on the presumed subject knowledge of the reader. Remember that none of the information in these sources is likely to be any more recent than two years back from the present, even if the date of publication is the current year.

Finding a dictionary, an encyclopedia, or even a textbook that covers a particular chemical subject or concept can quickly solve many chemical information questions. If more in-depth information is needed, one could turn to treatises or monographs written on the topic. For this type of background reading, a subject search of a LIBRARY OPAC (online public access catalog) database is often a good approach to identify an appropriate source. Library of Congress subject headings are commonly used in college and research libraries, and LC breaks the broad area of chemistry into sub-areas. Of course, one option to find a relevant book is simply to browse an appropriate section of a library's stacks, using the following table as a roadmap in a library that uses the Library of Congress classification system.


Subjects LC Range
Chemistry (General) QD 1-69
Analytical Chemistry QD 71-145
Inorganic Chemistry QD 146-196
Organic Chemistry QD 241-449
Physical and Theoretical Chemistry QD 450-731
Crystallography QD 911-999

Many library OPACs allow two methods of searching for a subject:

  • keyword (any subject word you can think of)
  • prescribed subject word or concept.

The latter approach utilizes a controlled vocabulary, in this case, the Library of Congress subject headings. Those may be searched in the Indiana University Libraries OPAC, IUCAT. The broad LC subject headings can often be further defined by topic or format of the material being indexed, so to find appropriate works one could search phrases such as:

chemistry inorganic encyclopedias
chemistry analytic dictionaries.
Dictionaries[edit | edit source]

Chemical dictionaries vary considerably in the type of information found in them, some being very close in content to a handbook of physical properties. Before we look at specific dictionaries, let's think about why we would go to a science dictionary in the first place. Quick access to essential facts about a topic, with the information arranged in an easy-to-use format, is the usual reason for consulting a dictionary. There are some dictionaries that cover many areas of science, for example, the Academic Press Dictionary of Science. This is typical of such dictionaries, with most of the content devoted to definitions of words or concepts arranged in alphabetical order. The work also contains special sections for such information as:

  • symbols and units
  • fundamental physical constants
  • measurement conversion
  • periodic table of the elements
  • atomic weights
  • particles
  • solar system
  • geological timetable
  • five-kingdom classification of organisms
  • chronology of modern science.

Another example of a general science dictionary is the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific and Technical Terms. A recent edition of this dictionary included a diskette with a file that can be loaded into Microsoft Word so that the spelling checker in Word recognizes correctly-spelled scientific terms instead of flagging them as misspellings.

The IUPAC Compendium of Chemical Terminology (Gold Book) has a wealth of chemical terminology, including chemical names. The current edition of the Compendium is a collection of nearly 7000 terms, with authoritative definitions, spanning the whole range of chemistry.

Below are some specific printed dictionaries for chemistry.

  • The Concise Encyclopedia Chemistry, a translation of a German work, has over 14,000 entries, plus 1,600 figures and 300 tables.
  • Hawley's Condensed Chemical Dictionary includes descriptions of chemicals, raw materials, processes, and equipment; expanded definitions of chemical entities, phenomena, and terminology; and descriptions or identifications of many trademarked products used in the chemical industry. In addition, it includes accepted chemical abbreviations and short biographies of important chemists. Properties of chemical substances, derivation, hazardous aspects, and use are also found in the entries for chemicals.
  • Grant and Hackh's Chemical Dictionary contains about 55,000 entries. Obviously, the entries must be somewhat abbreviated in order to keep the size of the volume within reason. Nevertheless, Grant and Hackh's is a good first place to check for information on an unknown chemical word or concept.

A number of smaller dictionaries that cover all of chemistry have appeared over the years, among them:

  • Elsevier's Dictionary of Chemistry
  • Macmillan Dictionary of Chemistry
  • McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Chemical Terms
  • Glossary of Chemical Terms

These are sometimes repackaged versions of the larger science dictionaries that have appeared from a given publisher.

The third edition of the Concise Encyclopedia Biochemistry and Molecular Biology is a translation of another German work. Although there are no color plates, the work has lots of illustrations. The Comprehensive Dictionary of Physical Chemistry, which appeared in 1992, was the first of a planned seven volumes that would cover all of modern chemistry, but apparently was never completed.

There are some freely accessible dictionaries on the Web. Here is one list of a few chemical dictionaries on the web. A biology effort to deal with terminology is the Gene Ontology database. The Gene Ontology (GO) project is a collaborative effort to address the need for consistent descriptions of gene products in different databases. Another dictionary-type work is the Chemical Acronyms Database, with over 14,000 terms. There are also specialized printed acronym works, such as Beddoes' The Polymer Lexicon, a list of over 5,000 acronyms and abbreviations used in the rubber and plastics industries, and GABCOM & GABMET, subtitled, acronyms of compounds and methods in chemistry and physics.

As a final example of a specialized dictionary, consider Callaham's Russian-English Dictionary of Science and Technology. A dictionary of this type is particularly useful when faced with the prospect of reading an article in a foreign language. Again, a library's OPAC may help find a suitable dictionary with a subject search such as:

German language dictionaries English

For chemical names, the Regulated Chemicals Listing, Chemlist, in SciFinder gives French, German and Spanish equivalents. Word2Word, a more general source, may include some chemical terms.

There are many more dictionaries for chemistry than can be discussed here. To see more of them, perform a keyword search on the Chemical Reference Sources Database for: dictionar

Encyclopedias[edit | edit source]

Encyclopedias, like dictionaries, are tools designed to provide first and essential facts on a topic. However, the encyclopedia will make an effort to fit a topic into a general framework and to relate it to other concepts. Furthermore, an encyclopedia article will often provide a bibliography of key references on a topic so that more in-depth investigation is possible. General encyclopedias usually have a wealth of information on scientific topics, and we now see them becoming accessible on the Web. One such example, of course, is Wikipedia. Another is Britannica Online, the Web counterpart to the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Also found at the EB site is Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.)

Searches for information on mass spectrometry were run on the two popular online encyclopedias below, the first on Wikipedia, and the second on Britannica Online.

MS Wikipedia.jpg

Mass Spectrometry article on Wikipedia, 12/22/2010

MS Britannica.jpg

Mass Spectrometry article on Britannica Online, 12/22/2010

Remember that, as a secondary work, information in an encyclopedia is invariably dated, even in an encyclopedia that is on the web. Such tools are not meant to keep up with the latest advances in science that have appeared this week. That is the job of the abstracting and indexing services.

There are specialized general science encyclopedias, just as there are specialized science dictionaries. One of the best is the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology. A smaller, but very highly regarded encyclopedia is Van Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia. Both of these are now available in CD-ROM editions.

Specialized encyclopedias also exist for more specific areas of science, such as the Encyclopedia of Physical Science and Technology. Although this work keeps the traditional alphabetical arrangement of an encyclopedia, it contains a detailed subject index and a relational index, as well as a glossary.

In the field of chemistry, the most important encyclopedia is the Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology. The massive set, which began to be published in its fifth edition in 2004, is now complete in 27 volumes. About one-half of the articles deal with chemical substances, and in those articles one can find a wealth of information on everything from physical properties to environmental concerns. But there are also many articles on such topics as industrial processes, uses made of chemical substances, pharmaceuticals, dyes, fibers, food, etc. Plainly stated, this is the single most important reference work for all areas of chemistry and all types of questions that you might encounter in your career. Note that this is not an encyclopedia that is updated all at once. As has been true of previous editions, the reader must be aware that the earlier volumes are more outdated than are those that have recently appeared. A good library will maintain all editions of the Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia because it is frequently cited in the literature. The article on "mass spectrometry" in the fourth edition covers 24 pages and includes 79 references in the bibliography. In 2001, a Web version, Kirk-Othmer Online, became available.

Examples of more specialized encyclopedias in chemistry are the Encyclopedia of Inorganic Chemistry, with 260 main articles and over 860 short definitions, etc. in 8 volumes (also on CD-ROM), and the Encyclopedia of Analytical Science in 10 volumes. Following our example of "mass spectrometry" into this work, we find in the index volume six columns of entries. The main article on the topic covers nearly 250 pages of the work, divided into sections dealing with "Theory and Instrumentation," "Techniques," and "Applications." On the other hand, the 3-volume Encyclopedia of Spectroscopy and Spectrometry has only an 8-page article on the historical perspective of mass spectrometry, with an additional one-page article on applications of mass spectrometry to food science. Many other references to the topic are found scattered throughout the work if one consults the index. A new approach for this encyclopedia is that the purchaser of the set has the right to access it on the Web for a period of time, with an annual fee imposed after that. Another specialized encyclopedia is the Encyclopedia of Computational Chemistry in 5 volumes.

Thus, we see that, depending on the type of encyclopedia chosen, a great deal of information about a topic can be found very quickly.

Other Books[edit | edit source]

The final type of materials we will consider in this section is books. It is sometimes difficult to draw the line between a textbook and a MONOGRAPH, a book written on a fairly narrow topic, increasingly by several authors, that is meant to be an authoritative work on the topic. Whereas a textbook clearly has been written to satisfy a teaching function, monographs may be used in upper-level chemistry courses or specialized seminars to cover a number of related topics for which no single textbook exists. This is especially true for new and emerging areas of study.

Reviews of books often appear in journals. A useful RSS feed to keep up with book reviews in major chemistry journals is provided by ETH in Zurich: CLICAPS

A TREATISE is a multi-volume set of books that is intended to be an authoritative exposition of a topic. The treatise is designed to be used by experts in a field, and the authors presume a fair amount of knowledge of the discipline on the part of the readers. This is evident in the way treatises have the material arranged. Invariably, they are arranged according to the authors' or editors' conceptions of how the material should be most logically presented for the benefit of a reader who understands the discipline. Thus, we never find a treatise arranged in alphabetical order of the topics covered. In addition to the arrangement, a clue that a work is a treatise is often found in the title, which may have the word "comprehensive" as part of the main title. Finally, treatises are usually published over a long period of time, so it is imperative to check the date of publication to see how up to date the information is in the volume. Click on the names of the first two treatises below to see the wide range of the dates of publication.

Examples are:

Unfortunately for the novice, it is unlikely that an index covering the entire set of volumes of a treatise will be published until the set is complete.

Many older chemistry books can now be found on the Web at Internet Archive. There are now many electronic versions of current chemistry books. For an idea of the range of titles available, see the ebooks page of the Indiana University Chemistry Library.

Summary[edit | edit source]

Printed books should not be overlooked when doing deep background reading to research a new area of interest. The encyclopedias, monographs, and treatises discussed in this chapter have a wealth of information on past chemical discoveries. Although many dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other book-like materials are now on the Web, it is likely to be a long, long time before all of them will be found there. Use library OPACs and other online sources to identify relevant books for your research.

SIRCh Link for Deep Background Reading

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