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Put Yourself on Target

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Today’s post is authored by Constance Carter, head of the science reference section. Connie has written for us before, see her posts – Food Thrift: Scraps from the Past  and Celebrate with a Chocolate Chip Cookie.

Snapshot of the LC Science Tracer Bullet on Plant Exploration and Introduction

The LC Science Tracer Bullet is celebrating its 40th birthday this month! The idea behind the Tracer Bullet was to find new and easier ways to help readers locate material of current interest in the sciences.  Certain subjects were either requested frequently or were so timely, that it made sense to create literature guides to be given out whenever these topics arose.  The guides were loosely based on MIT’s single-page Pathfinders , however, the Tracer Bullets were anywhere from 6-20 pages, so that information other than a list of basic, specialized or related books could be added.  This additional information included subject headings, conference proceedings, journal articles, technical reports, government publications, abstracting and indexing services, handbooks, organizations, and later, vetted web sites. 

The odd name was a result of a contest within the Division. Former reference librarian Jane Collins, the winner, believed that the sources in these bibliographies would help put someone who knew relatively little about the subject “on target,” which is what a tracer bullet does.  Staffers nicknamed them “TB’s”, and in the first 20 years, over 405,000 copies had been distributed.

Snapshot of LC Science Tracer Bullet on Petroleum Engineering

Reference librarians made a list of the most frequently asked queries at the science reference desk to come up with the first topics.  At the time, President Nixon had made his trip to China and accompanying journalist Scotty Reston had an appendectomy there without anesthesia, so the first title chosen was Acupuncture.  Reference librarian T.R. Liao knew the subject well and found that the Library’s collections easily supported the topic.

A year into the series we were surprised to receive a letter from the Superintendent of Documents asking to make our bibliographies a U.S. Depository Library item, complete with an ISSN.  We had designed them as an in-house publication, but learned that the Government Publications Office had been deluged with requests for them as the titles found their way into science newsletters, newspaper articles and the Monthly Catalog of U.S. Government PublicationsWe were even slightly chagrined to find out that a government documents librarian had published indexes to the Tracer Bullet series in 1983 and 1988 issues of Reference Services Review: RSR!  Many of the titles relating to education were picked up by ERIC, and in 1990, Omnigraphics, Inc. republished 173 of the titles in four volumes, which sold for $40 a volume.  The TB’s on science fair projects were published in Science Books & FilmsWe had a hit on our hands, and today they can easily be found using Google and on our Science Reference Section’s web site.

Along the way we found that other librarians were using our Tracer Bullets as acquisition tools, to teach bibliographic instruction classes, as resources for support groups, as handouts at career fairs and even to sell hydroponic systems and ginseng.  We have received requests for titles from an incredible variety of places and organizations–a high school in Johannesburg, South Africa, the Tonight Show, the Oriental Institute Library at Oxford, Brooks Air Force Base, the Los Angeles Times, and Kickapoo High School in Springfield, Missouri.  We have files full of thank you letters from kids and adults, state legislators, librarians and corporations.

Mrs. Arme cake from the National Photo Company Collection

We are proud to still be producing print and electronic Tracer Bullets in the 21st century and are pleased that we can continue to save our readers time and effort in their research. 


 Happy Birthday, Tracer Bullets!


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