It can really be a chore to track down old papers. While many journals have digitized their collections and placed them online, a subscription is often required to access old papers (even from the 19th century!)*. That’s if the paper you’re looking for was published in a journal that still exists, of course. There are plenty of journals that have gone defunct or are otherwise unavailable, a sad fact that keeps important papers out of the hands of students and scientists today.
[*This really aggravates me. Shouldn't these papers, in many cases nearly 100 years old or more, be freely available? The merits of open access for new papers might be debatable, but I see no reason why journals should continue to charge high prices for work that otherwise would be in the public domain.]
Enter Google Books. While many of the papers by naturalists like T.H. Huxley are cordoned off behind subscription walls, there used to be a practice of collecting the complete technical papers of scientists and publishing them in a series of volumes. (A practice which I wish would be resurrected!) These books are hard to find outside of libraries today, but thanks to digitization projects many of them have wound up as free pdfs on Google Books. Because they are so old, the copyright on the books is expired, allowing anyone to download the complete scientific works of a number of important researchers.
Previously it would require large sums of money (either for purchasing rare books or visiting libraries where they were kept) to access these volumes, but now you can download them to your computer at no cost. What’s more, you can even search for particular subjects, so if you’re looking for mentions of Archaeopteryx in books published between 1870 and 1925 (as I was yesterday), you can quickly call up a list of every book uploaded so far from that time period that says anything about Archaeopteryx.
Indeed, Google Books presents substantial potential benefits to scientists and historians. Without open access to these old documents, for instance, I would not have been able to write a paper about T.H. Huxley’s thoughts on the association between dinosaurs and birds. I also would not have been able to track down new references (many of which I have not seen cited elsewhere) for my own book project.
Specifically, it was with no small degree of excitement that I uncovered several treasures yesterday. I have long been interested in tracking down the work of the famed Canadian paleontologist Lawrence Lambe, but I was never able to find any of his papers. I had seen his name mentioned plenty of times but I was tired of summaries; I wanted to read his work, particularly on Gorgosaurus. Yesterday I hit the mother lode. Apparently in his library the paleontologist William Diller Matthew had a copy of the Collected Memoirs of Lawrence M. Lambe, which was contained in the University of California library. It was recently scanned, and I was happy to find that the volume collected many of Lambe’s post-1900 papers. (I can only hope that there are other volumes with some of his earlier work.) Unfortunately some of the illustrations were not properly scanned, but I was happy to finally have a look at the Gorgosaurus paper that I had been after for so long.
I also stumbled across some collected papers of H.F. Osborn, but the real “prize” that had so long eluded my grasp was William Beebe’s paper on the “Tetrapteryx.” Inspired by some quills he saw on the leg of a pigeon, Beebe supposed that prior to Archaeopteryx there was a bird ancestor that had flight feathers on the fore- and hindlimbs, making it four-winged (hence the name “Tetrapteryx”). The similarities between Beebe’s speculative avian ancestor and recently discovered feathered dinosaurs like Microraptor and Pedopenna are striking, and I have tried to find a copy of his paper for quite some time. Unfortunately the journal containing the paper (Zoologica) went under and so there is no online archive, but it was collected in a volume of papers from the journal and now anyone can download a copy of it.
There are bugs in the system, of course. Not all scans are high quality, and in many cases there are problems with links and search terms. Such minor annoyances aside, Google Books is an excellent resource that I sincerely hope will continue to grow and improve. I could not engage in the research I do without it, and I think it provides plenty of previously hard-to-access fodder for historians of science. There is a greater well of resources available than I could have imagined, and regardless of whether you’re a researcher or bibliophile, I highly encourage you to make use of this fantastic resource.