Skip to Main Content

Music, Theater, Dance: An Illustrated Guide

Service to the Public and to the Collections

The information in this guide is based on a 1993 publication and has not been updated.

Who uses the music division in the Library of Congress? Is it the three-term senator looking for that nineteenth-century song about his home state, or the elderly woman trying to find the love song her father copyrighted in 1915? Could it be the Dutch professor requesting microfilm copies of several seventeenth-century music theory books, or the New Yorker whose passion is American musical theater? Is it perhaps the graduate student studying the correspondence between a composer and her publisher, or a picture researcher looking for just the right illustrations for a book about chamber music?

Actually, it is all of these, and many more, who visit or write to the world's largest music library every year. Some come looking for one particular book or small scrap of information, while others pursue brief or extended research along broader lines: all of the works and related materials of a certain composer, perhaps, or all of the trios written for flute, viola, and piano. Many visitors are solo artists or ensemble performers seeking--and finding--a treasure trove of new repertoire. Whether the project is large or small, professional, or simply one of personal interest, these patrons turn to the Music Division of the Library of Congress because of the vast, comprehensive, and unique nature of its collections.

Indeed, the breadth and depth of its collections are what set the Music Division apart from other large libraries, both in the United States and abroad. Its holdings stretch from antiphons to zarzuela, from more than 120 songs about the Titanic to a magnificent collection of Brahms autograph music manuscripts and letters, from books about harpsichord construction to Paganini's handwritten recipe for ravioli! The Albert Schatz Collection contains more than 12,000 opera librettos, the perfect complement to an outstanding collection of orchestral opera scores. The music and papers of Aaron Copland and Irving Berlin have been wonderful additions to collections already strong in primary resources for both classical and popular American music.

Patrons who come to the Library of Congress to use the collections of the Music Division do so in the Performing Arts Reading Room (PARR) in the Madison Building. Here, readers have at their disposal what sometimes seem to be unlimited resources for their musical research: thousands of scores, music histories, bibliographies, theory books, music journals, microforms, manuscripts (both music and literary), and more ephemeral materials such as scrapbooks, programs, and photographs. Even such a specialized subject as music for silent films is well represented. (Staff member Gillian B. Anderson's Music for Silent Films, 1894-1929, has become a well-known source and has revitalized interest in performing the scores during showings of the films.)

Members of the Reader Services staff answer reference questions, search automated networks with other libraries, and assist patrons using the card catalogs, computers, microform readers, and photocopiers. The reference collection in the reading room contains basic music reference books, theater and dance reference sources, and some general reference tools as well.

Nonetheless, because the music collections are so vast--an estimated eight million items--many works, especially smaller forms such as songs, works for one or two instruments, and the like, are not represented by an individual entry in either the card or automated catalogs. These materials can be located, however, with the assistance of the resourceful and skilled reference staff. Patrons may be directed to other areas of the Library--for example, to the public catalogs of the Copyright Office in the Madison Building--to search for further information about works that are not fully cataloged. Indeed, the Library's millions of music copyright deposits document the history of music in the United States as no other materials can--they are yet another treasure trove of unique items.

For decades the Music Division, in conjunction with the Library's Photoduplication Service, has administered an on-site preservation microfilming project to both protect and disseminate materials in its collections. In addition, commercial microforms are added to the collections on an ongoing basis. Readers use these materials in the soundproof multipurpose rooms which line the Performing Arts Reading Room. To enable readers to hear the music they are using, some multipurpose rooms contain one or two pianos for reading through works in the collections. All of the multipurpose rooms are equipped with listening facilities, some with video facilities; researchers consult the Library's Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division to make appointments to listen to recordings or view videorecordings.

Because the Music Division's collections include so many unique and valuable items, careful conservation and preservation of these treasures are a major consideration. Staff members work closely with the specialists of the Conservation Office so that appropriate treatments and housings are devised for the materials that need them. In addition, the Division also selects items every year for inclusion in preservation microfilming projects. In these efforts, the Music Division seeks to serve its diverse constituents--who share in common a love for some aspect of the musical arts--for many generations to come.