SCIENCE FAIR PROJECT INDEX: An Overview
Cynthia Bishop, Librarian
Kate Jones-Orr, Librarian
Science & Technology Division, Akron-Summit County Public Library
A student comes into your library looking for ideas for a science fair project on the effect of acid rain on plants or on constructing a rubber band powered car to demonstrate potential energy. Your library has an extensive collection of science project books, but how do you begin to find these particular projects? In order to address this problem, the librarians in the Science & Technology Division of the Akron-Summit County Public Library decided in the late 1960s to create a subject index to the projects in the books housed in their collection. The original index consisted of a card file arranged by subject headings. In the early 1970s, an out-of-town library visitor who was being a given a tour of the department including the special projects of the staff was impressed with this file. The visitor suggested that it could be helpful to other libraries and that it should be published. As a result of this encounter, the first edition of the Science Fair Project Index was published by Scarecrow Press in 1975. Three other paper editions were published at approximately five year intervals until 1989.
During the late 1980s, the staff realized that the Index would be even more useful if it were published in an electronic format. While the indexing continued in the early 1990s, the Division struggled with the mechanics of creating this electronic tool. In 1996 Michele McNeal joined the staff and began development of an in-house Microsoft Access database that could handle the multilevel complexity of the information. During the late 1990s, a public user interface was created using PERL scripting and the electronic index went live on the library’s website in 1999. As of the summer of 2008, a new and improved ASP driven version has replaced the 1999 interface. This new database allows for more timely updates and has a more structured and easier to read display.
The current online index, http://www.akronlibrary.org/scifair, covers books published from 1990 to the present day. It provides both subject and keyword access to over 35,000 experiments in over 1200 books. The intended users for this index include K-8th grade students, parents, teachers, and librarians. It also contains some experiments for high school students as well as manuals for teachers. A suggested grade level range is provided for each book. The database includes projects from almost all areas of science and many areas of technology. The further development of the database is an ongoing project of the division as part of the Library’s commitment to contributing to the literature of the profession. New subject headings, books, and experiments are continually being added.
Over the years the nature of science project books has changed dramatically. In the early days of the Index, the books and projects requested were in more traditional science subjects. Today they reflect the interests and trends of society as a whole with books on everything from environmental issues to forensic science. There are entire books on projects with pets, sports science, amusement park physics, or high tech electronics. The expanding array of topics has prompted the addition of thousands of new subject headings, based on the Library of Congress Subject Headings, to almost 4900 terms in the Index as of summer 2008. These headings are all fully cross-referenced and linked. In addition to subject access to experiments, the index also provides keyword searching of experiment titles and of explanatory text the librarians add to clarify vague or confusing titles. Thus if a subject search fails to retrieve a desired project, the keyword search should do the trick. Further searching is available by grade level and by the bibliographic information on the book (book title, author, etc.).
The advent of the Internet has also added a new dimension to science fair literature. Web sites on how to do projects and with ideas for experiments abound. There are sites created by educational entities as well as commercial sites which may charge for some of their content. This has perhaps had a negative impact on the demand for books for project advice, but many books are still being published with excellent ideas so the Science Fair Project Index will continue to be relevant for the foreseeable future.
It is worth noting that, in support of the Index, the Science & Technology Division maintains a vast collection of science project and experiment books. The collection is current and timely as well as historically deep. The majority of books in the collection are indexed in some incarnation of the Science Fair Project Index. Indeed, the Division has attempted to maintain at least one copy of virtually every book that has been indexed in any version of the Index from 1960 to the present.
Special mention needs to be made of the librarians who have been responsible for the Index over the years beginning with Janet Stoffer who originated the project. Alice Bright continued it into the late 70s. Cynthia Bishop has been the guiding light of the Index since 1979 and Kate Jones-Orr joined the project in 1994. Many other librarians have contributed as noted in the credits below. Invaluable assistance was provided by many typists who worked on the manuscripts and data entry, most notably Diane Wagner, Beth Cumberlidge, Linda Nay and Faye Bolen. Finally, a special acknowledgement is offered to Curtice Myers and Joyce McKnight, the Division Heads, who supported and championed the project from the start, and Valerie Sherman who continues that support today.
The current electronic version of the index is accessible through the Library’s web site at http://www.akronlibrary.org/scifair/
Four print editions cover 1960 to 1989:
Science fair project index, 1985-1989 for grades K-8, edited by Cynthia Bishop, Katherine Ertle, and Karen Zeleznik. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1992.
Science fair project index, 1981-1984, edited by Cynthia Bishop and Deborah Crowe. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1986.
Science fair project index, 1973-80, edited by the Science and Technology Division, Akron-Summit County Public Library. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1983.
Science fair project index, 1960-1972, edited by Janet T. Stoffer. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1975