Exploring the Early Copyright Collection at the Library of Congress

This post is by Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress.

What can be gleaned about American society by scanning some of the collected, creative output of its citizens? Exploring the Early Copyright Records Collection, 1790-1870 from the Library of Congress offers students one way to gain unique perspectives into the diversity of American thought at various points in time.

The Early Copyright Records Collection, 1790-1870 contains a wide array of materials produced as a result of the first federal copyright laws in 1790 and 1831 (as amended). Prior to the 1870 Copyright Act – which consolidated registration at the Library of Congress – those seeking copyright registration would complete a registration form at the local federal district court, pay a registration fee, and deposit a printed title page with the clerk of the court. This collection contains almost 100,000 unbound title pages which were held by these federal district courts and other government offices in Washington, DC. These pages include sheet music, prints, dramatic compositions, photographs, and books covering all topics of human endeavor.

Ten Penny Song Books: Ballads of War, 1864

“Star of the North” postcard, 1860s

Table of Contents, Atlantic Monthly February 1864

Exploring this treasure trove of materials offers students a high-level snapshot of creative efforts at various points in time. For instance, if you are studying the Civil War, you might ask students to browse through the collection and find one title page that interests them, note their observations, and ask them to reflect: What does this item say about the time in which it was produced? Even a small sampling of items might reflect diverse viewpoints, formats, and disciplines:

  • An 1860s envelope depicts President Abraham Lincoln as the Comet of 1861. With the Civil War just underway, many sought to divine meaning from this brilliant astrological occurrence.
  • An 1864 title page for Abraham Africanus: His Secret Life illustrates anti-Lincoln sentiment. The pamphlet promises to reveal the president’s secret life “as revealed under the mesmeric influence.”
  • The 1864 Ten Penny Song Book: Ballads of War exemplifies one way that the war found its way into popular arts and culture.
  • The cover and table of contents of the February 1864 Atlantic Monthly magazine provide some insight into what people were reading in popular magazines. Among the magazine contributors, students may recognize well-known figures such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

After sharing their individual insights with the class, students can work together to identify overall insights. They might consider: What different perspectives are represented, and through what means?  Encourage students to also comment on the absences: Whose voices are not represented in the copyright records? Finally, students can conduct additional research on items or topics which have been introduced through the activity.

The Library of Congress Early Copyright Records Collection spans many topics: children’s books, board games, industrial inventions, medical cures, how-to manuals, and more. Invite your students to find something that captivates their interest and learn more!

 

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