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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2009


Who's Afraid of Those Big Bad Patents?

Linda Shackle
Noble Science & Engineering Library
Arizona State University
Tempe, Arizona

Copyright 2009, Linda Shackle. Used with permission.

In the past year I've been contacted with surveys and inquiries about whether we are incorporating patents into our library instruction programs for engineering. I hope that those survey takers will find that most academic sci-tech librarians do teach their students how to search the patent literature. I would also hope that being able to find patents is a skill that all science and engineering librarians have, regardless of the type of library or subject area they work in.

But...I'm afraid that using the adjectives "most" and "all" in the above sentences is probably not realistic. I get suspicious when I see surveys asking "do you do this" or "do you do that?" It gives the impression that at least someone out there thinks it's not being done. And sci-tech librarians should be knowledgeable about patents.

Back in the "print only days," dealing with patents was difficult, if not impossible, if you weren't at either the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) or a patent depository library. At best, most libraries of that era would have only the USPTO's Official Gazette (usually coming via the Federal Depository program) containing the patent bibliographic information and the first claim (which most people mistakenly thought was an abstract). Even some of the patent depositories, which had all the search tools, did not have complete collections of the patents. For most libraries, handling patent questions pretty much consisted of giving the budding inventor directions to either the USPTO or the nearest patent depository then waving goodbye.

I fear that even today, many sci-tech librarians are still doing the same "I'd like to help you out...which way did you come in?" routine. This despite the fact that search tools, instructions on how to use them, and the full text of U.S. and many international patents are now available on the web -- for free. Every U.S. citizen, using either a home computer or that of the local public library, has access to everything that once was only available in person at the USPTO or a patent depository library. What a disservice to our customers if we are telling them they have to travel to their region's patent depository for something they could do right from their homes or from within our libraries. And shouldn't we, as professionals, be at least as competent, if not more so, at finding information as Joe Sixpack is these days?

Everyone who works a sci-tech information desk (classified staff and librarians alike) should be able to use the USPTO Patents Granted and Patents Applications databases (, Google Patents (, and the European Patent Office's Esp@cenet Worldwide database ( to find a patent by number and print it out. Staff should also be familiar with how to use the Esp@cenet Worldwide database to determine if a foreign language patent has a U.S. equivalent or a machine translation available. Librarians who work in subject areas where patenting is prevalent (and that's getting to be just about every sci-tech area) also need to be able to use these databases not just to find patents by number but also by inventor, assignee and subject. And shouldn't business librarians be able to find statistics showing the patenting activity of their state and local area?

Patents are not something to fear or to avoid. I hope you'll find that although patents may not be easiest format you've ever dealt with, they can be fun, informative, and certainly manageable. And they are a necessary competency for 21st century science and technology librarians.

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