Many of the most important scientific discoveries of the 19th and 20th centuries were first published not in book form but as articles in scientific journals, making this a key area for science collectors. A major difference between journal articles and other types of printed material is that issues of scientific and technical journals usually aren’t distributed to the general public. Occasionally scientists and independent researchers subscribe to journals, but most copies go to institutional libraries where they are often rebound as complete volumes in utilitarian library bindings. This restricts the number of copies in collectible condition that are available on the open market, and issues in their original wrappers, as well as offprints, of important papers can fetch high prices. Below, a short analysis of four general formats in which journal articles are available to collectors:
Rebound as part of a full volume or volumes: This is one of the most common forms in which journal articles appear on the market, but perhaps the least desirable to collectors. Containing many weekly or monthly issues that together comprise a full volume of the journal, these books can be large and unwieldy, and while they often contain more than one important article, they’re also filled with articles of no historic importance. As noted above, they are often bound in quite utilitarian bindings, and may have library stamps or wear from usage. At Alembic we tend to purchase bound volumes from the 19th and 20th centuries only if the article of interest is very rare in other formats and the condition and binding are better than usual.
Removed from an issue and bound individually: In this case, a journal article has been removed from the issue in which it was originally published and bound as a stand-alone piece or together with a handful of other related articles. This is more common for pieces published in the 18th and very early 19th century, but they do also occur at later dates. These can be highly collectible depending on the article, the binding, and condition.
Issue in the original wrappers: Individual weekly or monthly issues in their original wrappers are desirable to collectors because, like novels in their original dust jackets, they are complete as they appeared when first printed. And, unlike whole volumes, they are slender and easy to handle and store. Articles in this format are less common for papers published in the 19th and early 20th centuries and more common for those published within the second half of the 20th century.
Offprints: Offprints are the rarest and most collectible form a journal article can take. They are copies printed at the same time and from the same typesetting as the journal (usually, but not always, retaining the page numbers of the article as it appears in the journal). But they are never bound with the rest of the issue. Few are printed, perhaps only two or three, and these are usually given to the authors of the piece. Sometimes authors give them away to colleagues, so it’s not unusual to find offprints with presentation inscriptions or important ownership signatures. The exceptions to offprint rarity occur when a journal’s editors believe that a paper will be very important, or the author is already famous. For instance, very few offprints were produced of Einstein’s papers prior to 1914, but once he had become a scientific celebrity many more than usual were printed to be sold.