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It Could Have Caused 'The Greatest Chaos in America'

Ainsworth Rand Spofford, Librarian of Congress from 1864 to 1897, lobbied for the law signed by President Ulysses S. Grant on July 8, 1870, that centralized copyright registration and deposit in the Library of Congress. Prior to that date, registration and deposit took place in U.S. District Courts. Spofford served as the sole copyright officer of the U.S. government and as such corresponded with statesmen, scholars, literary figures, publishers and editors nationwide. Until the opening of the glorious Thomas Jefferson Building in 1897, Spofford lacked adequate space for his rapidly increasing collection of copyright deposits. With more than 70,000 books piled on the floor of his office, he feared that he would soon be presiding over the "greatest chaos in America." Only his remarkable memory made these books accessible to Library users.

Today, when people register their claims to copyright, they generally send two copies of their work to the Copyright Office, and those copies are made available to the Library for its collections. As a result of Spofford's vision, the collections of the Library of Congress have grown largely through the copyright deposit system. Deposts include books, serials, computer-related works, movies, music, sound recordings, maps, prints, photographs and any media on which information is recorded.

Books and mail bags, piled high, 1890Copyright deposits waiting to be sorted, counted, and classified, 1897

You can read Jefferson's Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress for more of the story behind the creation of this remarkable institution. U.S. Copyright Office history and information and forms on registering your works for copyright are available here.

A. By 1890, the need for space in the Library's quarters in the Capitol were desperate -- books and mail bags were piled high.

B. Among the approximately 800 tons of books, pamphlets, maps, manuscripts, prints, pieces of music, and other materials moved into the first Library of Congress building in 1897 were these copyright deposits, photographed as they were waiting to be sorted, counted, and classified.

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