17 June 2022
The British Library’s Canadian Copyright Collection: An Introduction
This new series will shine a light on the British Library’s Canadian Copyright Collection.
The British Library’s Canadian Copyright Collection occupies a unique and quite intriguing place in its Canadian holdings. As well as books and periodicals, it includes maps, sheet music, insurance plans, photographs, and city and area directories, and its comprehensive nature means it offers a vital window into Canadian life and culture between 1895 and 1923. Yet, why does the Library have this Collection? And how can researchers make the most of it?
In this introductory blog, we will answer the first question; subsequent blogs will then illuminate different aspects of the holdings. However, we cannot begin the series without acknowledging the invaluable contribution of Patrick B. O’Neill – Canadian theatre historian and bibliographer extraordinaire.
In the 1970s, O’Neill began work on a research project to illuminate the full corpus of Canadian drama. Quite quickly, he ran into all sorts of obstacles. Yet he was nothing if not tenacious. In 1979, his quest for printed copies of playscripts published in Canada brought him to the British Library and here his conversations with curators – and their conversations with long-retired colleagues – led to the “re-discovery” of the Canadian Copyright Collection in its entirety. Several years later, O’Neill – then professor at Mount Saint Vincent University – returned to the Library on sabbatical to document the collection and it is thanks to his painstaking work, and that of several Dalhousie University colleagues, that it is so accessible today.
In a wonderfully clear and informative article, O’Neill recounts that the genesis of the Copyright Collection lay in an 1895 amendment to the Canadian Copyright Act of 1875.1 Up until 1895, obtaining copyright under Canadian law had involved meeting two conditions. First, the literary, scientific or artistic work had to be published and printed or reprinted in Canada. Second, two copies of the work – be it a book, map, chart, musical composition, photograph, print, cut or engraving – had to be deposited at the Office of the Minister of Agriculture. The 1875 Act instructed the Minister to deposit one copy of the work in the Library of Parliament and to retain the other copy in the Copyright Office.
In 1895, Section Ten of this Act was amended to require that three copies be sent to this Minister, and this third copy was to be forwarded to the Library of the British Museum. Thankfully, the Department of Agriculture appears to have been extraordinarily diligent in ensuring that these third copies reached the UK. Indeed, O’Neill notes that the "Canadian Copyright Lists" (that were found in the office of that retired member of staff and later used by O’Neill to document the collection) indicated nearly 100% receipt of the material copyrighted in Canada between 1895 and 1923. And the Department’s diligence would prove even more significant in light of subsequent events at the other two repositories.
In 1916, the Library of Parliament suffered its first of two disastrous fires, with the second one occurring in 1953. In both cases, water damage caused more destruction than the fires themselves and although its copyright collection was not totally destroyed, it was seriously depleted.
The Copyright Office Collection fared even worse. Having drawn a blank in finding any trace of this collection himself, O’Neill resorted to writing to his then Member of Parliament, the Hon. Robert Stanfield, to find out what had happened. Stanfield’s response arrived within 24 hours, but was far from encouraging. It appears that in 1937 the Copyright Office was due to move premises. Given that the new offices lacked enough space for its collection, advice was sought on how to proceed. The Committee of the Privy Council’s assessment was that few of the "several thousands of volumes of books, catalogues, periodical pamphlets, sheet music, maps" had any value. An Order-in-Council (whose signatories included then Prime Minister Mackenzie-King) therefore ordered that the material be offered for selection to the Secretary of State Library; anything remaining after that was to be disposed of by the Copyright Library. In total, the former chose 155 books of prominent Canadian statesmen and some 60 volumes of Canadian fiction. The remaining 50,000+ items in this copyright collection seem to have been destroyed.
Given these events, it is not surprising that the British Library now holds the most complete record of Canadian printing and publishing – in French and English, and in all its manifestations – for the period between 1895 and 1923. The reason for this particular cut-off date was that on 1 January 1924, the Canadian copyright Act of 1921 came into force and it no longer required items to be deposited in repositories in Canada or elsewhere. It should be noted that this was later amended by a 1931 bill that required publishers to send two copies of all books published in Canada to the Library of Parliament, thereby forming the basis of a Canadian national library.
Next time, we will focus on the sheet music published in Canada during this time, and in subsequent blogs we will explore maps, city and directories, insurance plans (more fascinating than one might initially imagine!) and photographs…
1. Patrick B. O'Neill, From Theatre History to Canadiana: The Canadian Deposit Collection in the British Library. Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1986.