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How to Obtain Publications that Aren’t Available Online

By Aly W. | First published December 7, 2019 | Last modified October 5, 2020


Publications that aren’t available online and only exist in physical form can be obtained from libraries by visiting them physically or through interlibrary loan for eligible individuals, from online book sellers, and possibly through me.


This is somewhat of a follow up to How to Research Transfeminine Hormone Therapy and the Medical Scientific Literature. This previous article also covers how to obtain publications that are available online but are behind paywalls.


Many publications, whether they are journal articles, book chapters, whole books, or dissertations, are not available online. Or, at least, not via Sci-Hub, LibGen, or university subscription journal access. This is particularly true for older publications from before the age of the modern web. Moreover, sex-hormone endocrinology and pharmacology, the foundation of transgender hormone therapy, is an aged field dating back over a century. As such, many publications in this discipline are quite old. A reliable sign that a publication isn’t available online is when it has a PubMed or Google Scholar entry but no associated publisher page (example). So how does one obtain publications that aren’t online?

Libraries: Visiting Physically and Interlibrary Loan

The main way is through libraries, particularly university libraries. Libraries often have incredible physical collections of publications, including entire sets of journals. You can use a website called WorldCat to search libraries throughout the world for publications and see which ones have them. WorldCat indexes books, book chapters, journals and journal articles, dissertations, and other resources. You can also use a given library’s own library search system, a common system being Primo. (The University of California, Irvine’s Primo library search system is here, for instance.) There is a good chance that a library with the publication will be near you and that you’ll be able to make a trip to the library and find the publication there. You can then read the publication, check it out if it’s loanable, or, if you’re so inclined, take photos of the pages with your phone or a camera for reading later (good for a single trip to get lots of publications). Note that you generally do not have to be a student or faculty/staff member to visit and access university libraries.

If you are a university student or faculty/staff member however, you have a special library privilege known as interlibrary loan (ILL). Some community college students and faculty/staff members may also have a more limited ILL service. With ILL, you can request publications from your university library that the library does not own. Your library will contact other libraries and will attempt to obtain the publication. Libraries have lending agreements with many other libraries, and your library will check with all the libraries it has lending agreements with that have the publication to see if they have a loanable copy of the item. Oftentimes, this will be successful. If the publication is a book or dissertation, it’ll be physically shipped to your library for you to pick up and borrow for a period of time. If it’s a journal article or book chapter, it’ll be scanned into a PDF and then sent to you by email or posted on your library’s online ILL request portal.

When using ILL, your library will try to obtain the publication you want from other libraries for free. Occasionally your library won’t be able to obtain the publication you want for free however. If you’re an undergraduate student, the request will come back as unsuccessful in this case. If you really want the publication, you can obtain it still by contacting the library and paying the fees for the item. This is often quite expensive though (e.g., $30 for a single publication).

If you’re a faculty or staff member at a university, such as a professor, postdoctoral researcher, junior research specialist, visiting scholar, library employee, or other type of eligible employee, many universities will subsidize the cost per ILL request for non-free items up to a certain amount. A subsidization of $50 per transaction will cover virtually any requested publication. It probably doesn’t matter if you’re a paid or volunteer faculty or staff member when it comes to this service—as long as you’ve been formally appointed, you should be eligible for it. Faculty/staff members and graduate students at major universities should be able to get almost any publication for free through the university’s ILL service. Not all of them will be, but the vast majority of requests are likely to be successful.

Libraries can be a very powerful resource for obtaining publications. Surprisingly, many people, including university students and even professors from my experience, are unaware of the vastness of the collections of their university libraries and what their universities can provide with their ILL service (or even that there is an ILL service).

Buying from Book Sellers Online

The other way to obtain publications that aren’t available online, namely books, is to buy them on websites like Amazon, AbeBooks, and eBay. Books that were recently released or are brand new can be very expensive, limiting the practicality of this route when it comes to the newest published content. But many books that are used and are more than a few years old can be purchased for a fraction of whatever their original sales price was. It’s not at all uncommon to get amazing books for only $5 to $10. Buying books obviously costs money, but oftentimes the rewards are worth it.