Music for the Nation

About the Collection

In 1870, the United States Congress designated the Library of Congress the sole agency for copyright registration and deposit. The law required that a complete copy of each copyrighted work be deposited in the U.S. Copyright Office.

Before 1870, most of the Library's music holdings were purchased and printed in Great Britain. The material in the copyright collection was almost exclusively the deposited work of American publishers. Almost overnight acquisition by purchase became insignificant, and the source of most of the Library's music holdings changed from England to the United States. America's legislature finally had a music collection made up largely of the product of its own presses… *

The new law had an immediate effect on the Library of Congress's acquisition of music materials. For the first time, thousands of music items poured into the U.S. Copyright Office at the Library. Further, eighty years of accumulated records and deposits were transferred to the Library from the U.S. District Courts. Yet despite the Library's substantial music holdings, it was not until 1896 that its "Music Department," as it was then called, was established. By that time, the Library had accumulated some four hundred thousand music items. The Library was still housed in the U.S. Capitol building, but the following year, in 1897, the collections were moved across the street into the Library's magnificent new building. Initially, the building was unfurnished and sheet music was often stacked on the floor.

Caption on Right A view of the temporary quarters of the Music Division in the Library of Congress made about 1900. The bound up piles of music on the floor are undoubtedly part of the vast numbers of copyright deposits that formed the nucleus of the Library's music collections and which, taken as a whole, constitute one of the Library's greatest treasures.

Over the years, staff in what came to be called the Music Division, selected items deposited for copyright and added them to the Division's classified collections. These items were works by the best-known composers of the day, or were otherwise thought to be interesting or important. Even so, much music material was left in the Copyright Office and was not transferred to the Music Division until some time in the 1950s.

Although the Music Division possesses many great musical treasures and rarities, the items deposited for copyright (numbering in the millions) make up the heart of its collections, and are, in the aggregate, perhaps the greatest treasure of all. These copyrighted materials form a unique record of music publishing and popular culture in the United States. The Library is committed to responsible stewardship of this legacy. Part of that stewardship is realized with the current project.

Please send any comments about the project to American Memory Help Desk.

* Gillian B. Anderson, "Putting the Experience of the World at the Nation's Command: Music at the Library of Congress, 1800-1917," Journal of the American Musicological Society 42, no. 1 (Spring 1989), 108-49. This article provides a more complete account of the history of the Music Division and of music copyright deposits.
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Music for the Nation