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Where It All Began: The Paper Print Collection

The Library’s moving image collections began with a bureaucratic decision.

paper print

paper print of George Méliès in The Untamable Whiskers (1904)

In August 1893, an unnamed employee (but most likely W.K.L. Dickson) of the Thomas Edison Laboratories in West Orange, NJ, where work had been going on for several years to develop motion picture photography, sent sequential frames from various camera tests to the Copyright Office. There being no provision in the copyright law for the registration of celluloid roll film, the employee printed the frames on gelatin “printing out” paper and sought to register the set as Class J photographs.

Now, it was easy enough to copyright an individual photograph, but a series of them? Should every frame be considered an individual image, each requiring an individual registration and the accompanying fee? Fortunately, a Copyright Office employee—whose name has been lost to history but to whom generations of film scholars and makers owe a considerable debt of thanks—accepted the registration as a single work. Precedent thus established, the Paper Print Collection was born.

Oh, and those first registrations from August 1893? Also lost to history. The oldest surviving copyrighted film is Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, which was submitted in January 1894.

It wasn’t until 1912 that motion pictures were added to the list of works eligible for copyright protection, but in the preceding fifteen years the Library received well more than 6000 titles—sometimes in complete rolls, sometimes as fragments or frames—for registration. In another bit of good fortune and despite the fact that paper prints aren’t viewable in the same way as traditional film stock, these thousands of paper records weren’t discarded, but rather stored in the basement of the Library’s Jefferson Building awaiting rediscovery…which is a terrific story that I’ll share in future posts.

The Paper Print Collection represents not only the foundation of our vast collections, but also the bedrock of American cinema. One cannot understand the evolution of narrative cinema without it. Further, as documentation of the lived experience in turn-of-the-20th century America, it’s peerless. If you’ve seen a documentary using moving images from that period, chances are it came from the Paper Print Collection.

As befits the crown jewel of the world’s largest collection of film, we’ve spent FAR more time cataloging, rehousing, preserving, and providing access to the Paper Prints than any other collection. In fact, we have a cataloging team working on them now, because the Paper Prints are a surprisingly complex group of works that haven’t always been accurately described. We are determined to correct and enhance their records as best we can. I’ll also write more about the preservation history of the Paper Prints, a fascinating story itself. Truly, we could devote an entire blog to the collection and never run out of things to say.

Last year the Paper Prints were featured as part of C-SPAN’s American Artifacts series. The video isn’t embeddable, but you can find it on the C-SPAN site here. Despite the on camera talent, “Early Motion Pictures” makes for a good, concise introduction to these endlessly fascinating films.

Of the approximately 3000 Paper Prints for which we have viewable copies (primarily the complete rolls and some of the fragments), fewer than 20% are available for viewing outside our Moving Image Research Center, and almost all of that 20% is available on the American Memory web site in low resolution versions. How we plan to change that situation will also be the subject of an upcoming post!

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