Free Online Sources of Historical Scientific Journals and Documents

[tweetmeme source=”Intellogist” only_single=false] Usually when prior art searchers need to find historical scientific documents, they’ll have to locate a library or archive that has a copy of the manuscript.  Sometimes though, digital collections of historic scientific documents are available through paid online database like INSPEC, which has journal articles dating back to the 19th century, or digital collections that are freely available online.  One collection that recently made the news is the Royal Society journal archive, which  became freely accessible to the public as of October 2011.  According to an article in the Guardian:

The Royal Society, established in 1660, began publishing the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society — world’s first scientific journal — in March 1665. In 1886, it was divided into two journals, Philosophical Transactions A (mathematics, physics and engineering) and Philosophical Transactions B (biological sciences), both of which are published to this day. Its historical archives are defined as all scientific papers published 70 years or longer ago. These historical archives include more than 60,000 scientific papers.

Another source of free scientific historical documents is the US Library of Congress, which hosts dozens of digital collections of historic documents, photographs, and other media relating to science, technology, and business on the Library of Congress website.

The Royal Society archive offers open access to a historic scientific journal, while the Library of Congress website provides free access to dozens of digital collections covering a wide range of scientific topics from a variety of eras. Read on to explore the contents of the Royal Society Journal Archive and the Library of Congress Digital Collections in Science, Technology & Business!

Royal Society Journal Archive

Royal Society Publishing is a website that provides both open access and subscription access to the Royal Society’s journals. The Royal Society describes itself as “the UK academy of science promoting the natural and applied sciences, a learned society, and a funding agency.”  9 journals are published and accessible through the Royal Society Publishing website, but only articles more than 70 years old are designated as part of journals archive.

Users can search the website, view a results list, and view abstracts for free, but if a user selects a subscription-only feature, they will be prompted to sign in to the website or purchase short-term (30 day) access to the article or journal issue.  Users can search all journals through a simple keyword search form, or they can access an advanced search form that allows them to search through a variety of fields (year, volume number, first page, DOI, author, title, title/abstract, title/abstract/text). Users can also limit results by date, journal, or subject collection.

Results can be viewed in a standard or condensed format with between 10-80 results per page, and the results can be sorted by best match, newest first, or earliest first. Phrase searching, wildcards, and Boolean operators are accepted in the search forms. See the “Help with Searching” section for more information on the system’s search syntax. Users can select specific articles from the hit list and choose to view the abstracts for all selected results or download the citations. Each result in the hit list displays which full record options are available for the text: abstract, full text, full text (PDF), and/or data supplement.

Of particular interest is the archive of online issues for Philosophical Transactions from 1665-1887.  Users can either browse through the issues by year or use the simple or advanced forms described above to keyword search within the journal archive.

Use the advanced search form to search through issues of Philosophical Transactions.

All articles for the Philosophical Transactions archive from 1665-1887 can be viewed in full-text PDF format in an Adobe Acrobat viewer.

A PDF of an article in Philosophical Transactions from 1833.

Library of Congress Digital Collections – Science, Technology & Business

The Library of Congress (LOC) website provides access to a number of digital collections, including collections of scientific, technological, and business-related documents.  Users can access the Digital Collections section of the LOC website by selecting the “Digital Collections” link in the menu at the top of each page on the website.  An option under the “Featured Digital Collections & Services” allows users to browse by topic, and the “Science, Technology & Business” topic includes a number of subtopics and collections which the user can browse through:

  • Aviation
  • Health and Medicine
  • Business and Industry
  • Inventors and Innovations
  • Earth, Life, and Physical Sciences
  • Transportation
  • The Environment
If the user is unable to locate relavent content through browsing, they can search through the LOC website through a quick search form in the upper right of each page on the site, which displays a search results page that allows the user to further limit results to specific format types, dates, sites and collections, contributors,  subject, etc.
The user can also can search through the library online catalogs.  LOC provides both basic and guided search options, as well as links to various other online catalogs (including an E-Resources Online Catalog). The basic search includes a single text search form and a menu of search types, ranging from a basic keywords search to an expert search using index codes and operators. The guided search includes three search forms, where the user can choose from a variety of fields via adjacent drop-down menus, and the search forms are connected with Boolean operators. Search tips are located beneath both search forms.

Browse by topic in LOC Digital Collections - Science, Technology, and Business.

By browsing through the Inventors and Innovations collections, I located the online collection of the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers (1862-1939).  The collection can be browsed by series, subject, or name or searched by keyword.  Under Collection Highlights, I found this scanned version a scientific notebook entry from 1876:

Alexander Graham Bell’s notebook entry of 10 March 1876 describes his successful experiment with the telephone. Bell’s notes show him speaking through the instrument to his assistant, Thomas A. Watson, in the next room, and uttering these famous words, “Mr. Watson — Come here — I want to see you.”

Scientific notebook, 1876 of Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers: Collection Highlights.

Scientific notebook, 1876 of Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers: Collection Highlights.


A searcher may find relavent prior art from any time period and any location, so a thorough searcher should incorporate searches of historic scientific document collections into their search strategy.  A broad, global focus is a key part of Landon IP’s Scour the Earth™  searches, which  incorporate multiple components including searching across dozens of subscription-based English language patent and non-patent literature sources, manually searching in libraries, and searching natively in the major Asian and European languages across both patent and non-patent literature resources.

The Royal Society Journal Archive contains more limited content than the LOC website collections, but the Royal Society Publishing site is much easier to search due to the central advanced search form.  The LOC website caters to a wide range of users, from school children to academic researchers, so the site includes a broader array of search features, from browsing options to website and online catalog search functions.  The sheer volume of information available on the LOC website also makes it more difficult to navigate and locate relavent content than the Royal Society Publishing site, which focuses on only nine journals.  Both sites contain valuable historical documents which may be of only limited interest in a prior art search, but all users can browse through and appreciate the historic contributions of the innovators who created these documents.

Have you found relavent prior art in a collection of historic documents?  Was it from a paper or digital collection? Let us know about your experiences with historic documents as prior art!

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This post was contributed by Joelle Mornini. The Intellogist blog is provided for free by Intellogist’s parent company Landon IP, a major provider of patent searches, trademark searches, technical translations, and information retrieval services.


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