A Bibliophile's Treasure Hunt

Strange smells, weird lighting, people with serious expressions on their faces as they quietly work on their research. Sound like the lab? Maybe. But I'm talking about the library, a place I have recently rediscovered. Not the online searchable library, not the downloadable PDF file library, but the real library. You know the place. It's that old, familiar building full of books and journals, 1970s-style study carrels, and the constant hum of photocopiers.My story starts here: I know a lot about

Feb 16, 2004
Stephanie Mohr
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Strange smells, weird lighting, people with serious expressions on their faces as they quietly work on their research. Sound like the lab? Maybe. But I'm talking about the library, a place I have recently rediscovered. Not the online searchable library, not the downloadable PDF file library, but the real library. You know the place. It's that old, familiar building full of books and journals, 1970s-style study carrels, and the constant hum of photocopiers.

My story starts here: I know a lot about fruit flies. They've been my model-organism-of-choice since graduate school. But when a colleague recently began to talk about the availability of whole-genome sequences of other insects (such as the mosquito, the honeybee, and other Drosophila species), I came to a quick realization. Yes, I know a lot about my beloved Drosophila melanogaster, but I knew embarrassingly little about insects in general. To make the most of these new genome sequences, I'd have to gain a working knowledge of entomology – and fast.

I started with a PubMed search, and soon I had a pile of papers on my desk. For a moment, I felt pleased. The feeling faded, though, when I saw that what I needed, a crash-course in the six-legged beasts, was not to be found in published papers or reviews. I needed books.

At first, I searched the online catalog and went right to the book on the shelf. Then I realized it was better to just explore. I found books with the words "natural history" in the titles and I didn't let myself get scared away. I found books with cracked spines and yellow pages and mysterious, inky stains, and I persevered to read them. And then I went even farther back in the stacks to find pamphlets about housefly eradication and field surveys of Drosophila populations from 75 to 100 years ago.

Why was I so intrigued? The authors of these books had one great advantage over most contemporary life scientists: They could take their time to discuss a topic at length. An idea that might now be buried in a minireview can be fully articulated in the space of a page or a chapter. I suddenly realized why my mentors keep their favorite books in their offices. Books can be useful references, even in today's digital age. The library is the perfect place to brush up on a field, learn the basics of a new one, or gain an appreciation of how insightful our forebears could be.

As for me, I'm hardly an expert in entomology now. But I have learned a lot about Drosophila and its cousins. This new knowledge will certainly help me make the most of comparative genomics approaches. And some of what I learned is just fun to know. For example, I learned that Drosophila is in the order Diptera, which comes from "di" meaning two and "pteron" meaning wing-like, as in pterodactyl, the winged dinosaur. And that Drosophila would be better called a vinegar fly than a fruit fly. And that ...

Curious to know more? Head to the library and look it up for yourself.

Stephanie Mohr smohr@fas.harvard.edu is a postdoc at Harvard University.