A Library of New Discoveries

July/August, 2007

Washington, D.C.: Ever since the 1870s, authors have sent their books, articles, songs and plays to the Library of Congress in order to secure copyrights. There the manuscripts sit to this day—box after box on pallet after pallet. Librarian James H. Billington considers the copyright deposits, now totaling 32 million items, "the richest partially tapped gold mine of American creativity."

Those that arrived before 1923 are now in the public domain. So are others that, for one reason or another, didn't have their copyrights renewed. Anyone can produce the plays in those categories without the necessity of getting the rights or paying royalties. But they weren't entered into any card catalogue, so how do you find out what is available?

There is a listing of "Dramatic Compositions Copyrighted in the United States, 1870-1916," a copy of which is in the reading room of the library's Madison Building on Capitol Hill. The library's literary manuscript historian uses volunteers and interns to wade through the records looking for the more intriguing items submitted after 1916. The researchers are up to about 1947, Billington says, and their list is a guide to a treasure trove.

This past January the library sponsored a reading of a previously unpublished find: Mammon, Guy Bolton's play about a spendthrift forced to reform in order to inherit a fortune. Some other examples: An early play by Arthur Miller called The Grass Still Grows, which earned him a Theater Guild Award the year he graduated from college; H. G. Wells's film treatment for Whither Mankind; the score for The Casino Girl, a musical comedy that played the Casino Theatre at the start of the 20th century; Cole Porter's 1916 See America First; and David Belasco's prompt book for William DeMille's muckraking drama The Woman. This last one even includes a sketch of the set from the 1911 production at what is today the New Victory Theater.

The Library also uses summer interns to scour the collections for intriguing items. To date, their discoveries include an operetta by John Philip Sousa titled Desiree, and a photograph of a blood-stained playbill from Ford's Theatre on the night Abrham Lincol was assassinated. Visit