Thorvald Solberg, 1897–1930


Thorvald Solberg took office as the first Register of Copyrights on July 1, 1897, shortly before the Library of Congress was moved from the U.S. Capitol to the new building that had been constructed for it. He was appointed by John Russell Young, the Librarian of Congress, after a visit to the White House, where Solberg had been interviewed by President McKinley.

The business connected with copyright had been an additional function of the Librarian of Congress ever since copyright registration was centralized in the Library in 1870. When the Copyright Office was established and the position of Register created, The Library Journal said of Solberg’s appointment, “There can be but one opinion as to the choice for the new office of Register of Copyrights of the one man, Mr. Solberg, best fitted for the post.”

Thorvald Solberg was born on April 22, 1852, in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, of immigrant Norwegian parents. He was the eldest of six children. After graduation from the public schools of Manitowoc, he traveled to Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1869 where he worked in the bookshop of a former neighbor. It was in this job that he first became acquainted with book catalogs. In 1872, he moved to Boston, then the intellectual capital of the United States, and worked in the book-selling business. He took a job with the bookseller George H. Smith in Detroit in 1874. He began his lifelong interest in compiling indexes and catalogs and compiled an index of thousands of references to the Annual Book Trade Catalogue.

Two years later, in 1876, he began working in the Library of Congress as a member of the law department staff and a cataloger. With a break of eight years, he was employed at the Library until 1930. He took a leave of absence in 1887 to visit European capitals and University towns to compile information on literature relating to codes and annual law enactments for Charles C. Soule, a well-known Boston bookseller. These lists enabled Soule to sell items on the list to law libraries in the United States. In 1889, Solberg left the Library to work for the Boston Book Company as its European representative. He and his wife sailed from New York on the SS Umbria for an extended book-buying trip to Europe. The purpose of the trip was to obtain for American libraries complete sets of English journals included in the Index to Periodicals compiled by William Frederick Poole. The arduous work brought on a health collapse in 1892, and Solberg and his wife sought a place where he could regain his health.

They settled on the Balearic Islands, where they lived from 1893 until 1896. Part of the time they resided in an old monastery, the Cartuja, at Valdemosa, Majorca. Returning to Washington, D.C., in 1896, Solberg was appointed the first Register of Copyrights, taking office in 1897. This position, he later said, was his life work. Upon beginning work, he saw his task as three-fold: organizing a suitable and efficient staff to work on arrears and planning the daily workflow; securing new and improved copyright legislation; and seeking improved international copyright relations, especially with England.

During his tenure, Solberg compiled the texts of all copyright legislation from 1793 to 1906. He wrote 32 annual reports and drafted proposed copyright legislation. In addition, he wrote the Catalogue of Copyright Entries from 1898 until1937. The 56,000-entry Catalogue of Copyrighted Dramas from 1870 to 1916, which he planned, was prepared under his direction. For many years he worked on a compilation of the books and periodical contributions on copyright. It was first printed in installments in Publishers’ Weekly in 1886. Solberg carried the catalog with him on visits to European libraries. He also collected the books and pamphlets represented in the catalog. All the books and Solberg’s miscellaneous manuscript, including bibliographies of the Bronte sisters and Hamlet, were destroyed when a fire burned down his house in 1918.
The Copyright Office grew during his 33 years as Register from an operation performed by a few clerks to one requiring an expert force of over 100 persons. In the annual report of the Library of Congress for 1930, Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam said:

"When Mr. Solberg took the office, the first tasks confronting him were . . . to devise and put into immediate operation an adequate system of financial accounting for the fees received; to invent routine methods of handling expeditiously the incoming flood of material that in the succeeding years has amounted to more than 7,000,000 articles; and to organize, train, and develop a staff of assistants. To this he applied himself with indefatigable industry and tireless devotion. The volume of work done is apparent on noting that the fees received, applied, and turned over to the Treasury from the day he took office until he retired have amounted to $3,988,119.20, the number of registrations made were 4,116,560, and the staff increased from a bare dozen to over 100 in number."

"Solberg worked incessantly for two major general objects: the improvement of our copyright law and the extension and definition of our international relations in all that involves the recognition and protection of literary property."

Solberg was closely connected with the Copyright Act of 1909, arranging conferences and hearings that preceded the rewriting of the copyright law, which remained the basic copyright law of the United States until 1978. Indeed the act of 1909 still dictates, in certain respects, the copyright status of works copyrighted while it was in force.

Solberg attended most of the important conferences on international copyright that took place in his time and was one of the foremost authorities on the subject. He attended the international copyright conferences in Barcelona (1893), Antwerp (1894), Paris (1900), Berlin (1908), Luxembourg (1910), Paris (1925), and Rome (1928), the last five as an official U.S. delegate. He was always a champion of the rights of authors and an ardent advocate of U.S. adherence to the Berne Convention, the principal multilateral treaty calling for a high level of copyright protection as a condition of membership, which the United States joined on March 1, 1989.

Solberg, with his wife, the former Mary Adelaide Nourse of Lynn, Massachusetts (d. 1920), was a frequent traveler in both America and Europe. Solberg himself crossed the Atlantic Ocean 38 times. He had a wide circle of friends, including R.R. Bowker, Melvil Dewey, Frances Hodgson Burnett, George Bernard Shaw, and the Archduke Ludwig Salvator of Austria. He was a regular contributor of articles on literature and literary property to The Nation and other periodicals and is the author of what is believed to the first American bibliography on copyright issued in 1886. Moreover, he wrote on a wide variety of subjects, including an article entitled “Suggestions for a Street-car Terminal in Washington” (1913). Like a number of Library of Congress officials in the early years, he lived on Capitol Hill, residing at 198 F Street, S.E., from 1898 until he moved to Glen Echo Heights, Maryland, about 1914. In 1940, that house also suffered a fire that destroyed Solberg’s collection of rare books, which he had intended to bequeath to the Library of Congress. He found time to serve as president of the District of Columbia Library Association.

In 1930, at the time of his retirement on his 78th birthday, Publisher’s Weekly said: “There has been but one Register of Copyrights and he is a unique personality uniquely fitted for the place.” And Mr. Solberg was still a notable figure in the copyright world when he died at home in Maryland on July 15, 1949, at the age of 97.