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LOC terms of use

Library of Congress

Pamela Boyer Sayre calls it “Our National Treasure”1… and oh boy is she right. The scope and breadth of the offerings, digital and otherwise, at the Library of Congress — the nation’s premier public library — is downright amazing.

It’s hard to even know where to begin to describe the Library of Congress. There’s a multi-media presentation at the Library website that gives a pretty good overview. Yes, it’s a library, first and foremost. It has “more than 34.5 million cataloged books and other print materials in 470 languages; more than 66.6 million manuscripts; the largest rare book collection in North America; and the world’s largest collection of legal materials, films, maps, sheet music and sound recordings.”2

But it’s so much more. At its heart, it’s an educational institution as well, with a vast online outreach. By the end of 2011, its online offerings included more than 31 million files.3 And those digital collections range from American history to government, politics and law to maps and geography and oh… so much more.

It offers nine different blogs to let users keep current on its holdings, it has a photostream at Flickr with an RSS feed, it can be followed on Facebook and Twitter, and it offers podcasts, videos and webcasts.4

And, for those of us making use of those wonderful resources through the Library of Congress’ website, its terms of use couldn’t be simpler.

Terms of use, remember, are “the limits somebody who owns something you want to see or copy or use puts on whether or not he’ll let you see or copy or use it.”5

And because the mission of the Library of Congress is “to make its resources available and useful to the Congress and the American people,”6 its terms of use are basically three-fold: (1) don’t violate anybody’s copyright;7 (2) don’t invade the privacy of individuals whose information might be found in the Library materials;8 and (3) don’t mess with the site itself.9 That’s it. No muss, no fuss.

Now don’t go running off and grabbing as much content as you can find at the Library website willy-nilly. Copyright is still something to think about. Not for anything produced by a government employee for the government (which includes a lot of what the Library does), but the Library warns that just because the Library has something and makes it available, doesn’t mean you don’t still have to look at whether the item is in copyright:

As a publicly supported institution, the Library generally does not own rights in its collections. Therefore, it does not charge permission fees for use of such material and generally does not grant or deny permission to publish or otherwise distribute material in its collections. Permission and possible fees may be required from the copyright owner independently of the Library. It is the researcher’s obligation to determine and satisfy copyright or other use restrictions when publishing or otherwise distributing materials found in the Library’s collections. Transmission or reproduction of protected items beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owners. Researchers must make their own assessments of rights in light of their intended use.10

Its Prints and Photographs Division has an entire webpage, “Copyright and Other Restrictions That Apply to Publication/Distribution of Images: Assessing the Risk of Using a P&P Image,” to help guide users through the ins and outs of deciding whether an image is fair game for our use.

In many cases, of course, the item offered by the Library is a government record or is out of copyright because of when it was published. For example, as far as I can tell, everything in the collection A Century of Lawmaking For a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, is in the public domain. Even there, however, the Library leaves it up to the user to stay on the right side of copyright law. While it says it’s “not aware of any copyrights or other rights associated with this collection,” it adds: “Responsibility for making an independent legal assessment of an item and securing any necessary permissions ultimately rests with persons desiring to use the item(s).”11

Don’t let the copyright concerns stop you from making good use of the Library’s collections: again, a great deal of the material in the digital collections is not copyright-protected and most items have fairly clear statements as to whether any copyright issues are known. You’ll often see specific factual information about copyright owners and related matters in the catalog records, finding aids and other texts that accompany collections. So be prudent but not paranoid about these materials.

The Library is doing its best to make information free — and freely accessible. Its terms of use make this national treasure a truly accessible national treasure.


Image courtesy Library of Congress Flickr photostream.

  1. Pamela Boyer Sayre, “Our National Treasure: The Library of Congress,” presentation, NGS 2009 Conference, The Building of a Nation: From Roanoke to the West; CD recording, Jamb Tapes, Inc. ( : accessed 17 Jul 2012).
  2. Library of Congress, “General Information,” About the Library ( : accessed 17 Jul 2012).
  3. Ibid., “Year 2011 at a Glance.”
  4. Library of Congress, “Connecting with the Library” ( : accessed 17 Jul 2012).
  5. Judy G. Russell, “A terms of use intro,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 Apr 2012 ( : accessed 17 Jul 2012).
  6. Library of Congress, “About this Site,” Legal ( : accessed 17 Jul 2012).
  7. Ibid., “About Copyright and the Collections.”
  8. Ibid., “Privacy and Publicity Rights.”
  9. Ibid., “Security.”
  10. Ibid., “About Copyright and the Collections.”
  11. Library of Congress American Memory Project, “Copyright and Other Restrictions,” A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875, ( : accessed 17 Jul 2012).)
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