A couple of months ago, I posted a picture from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. The picture, from the late 1800s, shows piles of copyright deposit materials on the floor in the Thomas Jefferson Building.
At the time, I joked about whether this was evidence of a registration backlog at the Copyright Office from a century ago. This turns out (drum roll) not to be the case.
I had the good fortune to be in Washington, DC for a short stretch this month. I took a brief trip to the National Archives in College Park, MD to look over some of the old files on Department of Justice copyright prosecutions. Among the various documents was a memo from H.L. Godfrey, an attorney at the DOJ in the late ’40s and early ’50s. I’ve included the memo below, which is somewhat interesting in its own right. The real gem, at least for solving this mystery, was the memo’s citation to hearings by the Librarian of Congress from early in the 1900s.
Librarian Of Congress from “Copyright Hearings — Bills S. 6330, S. 2499, S. 2900, H.R. 19853, H.R. 243, H.R. 11794–June 1906, December, 1906, March 1908,” pages 14 and 15:
The other matter is that of’ copyright deposits, the volume of these is now prodigious. During the last year alone the articles deposited exceeded 200,000 in number. A large proportion of these are of great value to the library and are drawn up into it. The rest remain in the cellar. The accumulations in the cellar now number a million and a half items. Many of these would be useful in other Government libraries; for instance, medical books in the library of the Surgeon General’s Office. Some of them might be useful in exchange with other libraries. A few might have value in exchange with dealers. The remainder are a heavy charge upon the Government for storage and care. The ought to be returned to the proprietors of the copyright if they want them, or, if not wanted, destroyed. [Emphasis added.]
So there we have it. The piles of deposits were apparently post-registration documents in which the Library of Congress had no interest — a turn of the century collection of bad art that wasn’t quite good enough to make the cut. So, so sad.
The solving of one mystery just leads to another. What happened to all of the works?
This has to be the greatest collection of bad art in the history of humankind. Did the Library light a giant bonfire and dance around the works bidding them adieu? Did they carry them to the trash in bags, one by one. Did it take years, months, decades?
Are they still there?
Someone out there must know the answer to this little mystery.
Inquiring minds want to know.