In celebration of copyright’s 150th anniversary this month, the Rare Book and Special Collections Division launches a new digital collection, Early Copyright Materials of the United States 1790-1870, which puts online for the first time nearly 50,000 title pages that accompanied copyright registrations dating back to the foundation of the country.
The documents — just the first wave of tens of thousands of old copyright entries that we’re digitizing — form a uniquely American record of creativity, dreams and aspirations from a world gone by. The title pages sent in by authors and publishers to register their books for copyright feature serious literature, comedies, romance, true crime and plays for the theater. There are works on religious instruction, how-to books and educational texts. There are also applications for inventions, sheet music, prints, photographs and illustrated works of the sciences, most notably botany and zoology.
Mark Twain’s 1875 application for “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” one of the landmark works of literature in the 19th century, bears a sub-title that didn’t make it to publication, “A Tale of a By-Gone Time.” Here is Frederick Douglass’s 1855 application for “My Bondage and My Freedom.” Suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage are here with a title page of “History of Woman Suffrage.” Other titans of the era are represented, including Nathaniel Hawthorne and James Fenimore Cooper, whose title pages are both ostensibly signed, like many applications, by the authors.
The documents stem from the first federal copyright laws in 1790 and 1831. They contain the earliest copyright records and materials that were held by the federal district courts and numerous government offices in D.C. The Copyright Act of 1870 — the birth of modern copyright law — consolidated previous records. The old entries were sent to the Library where they have since resided, nestled away in archival boxes, some scarcely seeing the light of day in 230 years. The Library, of course, has been home to the U.S. Copyright Office since 1897. It houses the modern records.
As you go through the collections, it’s worth remembering that many items were never published or have been lost to history. And, because copyright registration preceded publication, many registrations do not correspond to a published work. These ghost books offer a fascinating glimpse of a “what if” in American cultural history.
The next phase of digitization will be the copyright ledgers, which comprise of the great bulk of the collection. Organized by state and date, these bound items were created and maintained by government clerks. Here they recorded in careful handwritten entries each copyright application noting the title, author and date of each work.
But, for now, these digital files will allow tens of thousands of titles to be discovered anew. They offer readers the chance to search them from their homes, laptops or smart phones. The items beg to be searched and discoveries made. We welcome you to use this new primary resource that contributes so much to the early canon of the nation’s historic works.
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