Clearing the confusion about American dissertations and the Library of Congress

There seems to be a lot of confusion about whether ALL US dissertations are supposed to go to the Library of Congress, and how those works actually get deposited there. Cutting to the chase, the take-home message of this posting is this:

  • The official policy of the Library of Congress (LoC) is to collect ALL doctoral dissertations accepted by universities in the United States. Exceptions are made for dissertations in the fields of clinical medicine and technical agriculture, which are transferred to the National Library of Medicine and the National Agricultural Library, respectively.
  • The Library of Congress does not designate any particular method, or any particular dissertation distributor, as being exclusively authorized to submit US dissertations to the Library of Congress.
  • Theses below the doctoral level are not acquired by the Library of Congress except in those instances in which a particular thesis makes an original contribution to knowledge.
  • At the current time, LoC stated preference is to collect dissertations in microfiche.However, where the dissertation exists in more than one medium, they may consider accepting alternative formats.

Source: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS COLLECTIONS POLICY STATEMENT – Dissertations and Theses, November 2008. Online, URL: Last accessed 2-1-2013.

The official documentation from Library of Congress should allay any misconception within the American ETD community that dissertations must be submitted to any particular publisher or distributor in order to be eligible for Library of Congress acquisition. The facts are quite clear in the LoC Collection Policy Statement that “The Library of Congress …strives to hold copies of all U.S. doctoral dissertations.”

Yet in spite of this clear-cut policy statement, there seems to be general confusion over whether, and how, U.S. dissertations do in fact make their way to the expansive collections of the Nation’s Library. For example, a posting to the ETD-L discussion list from September 2010 indicates that a librarian had “read somewhere” that two copies of all published dissertations had to be sent to the Library of Congress. She was concerned whether ETD’s in the University’s digital repository were subject to this requirement.  In response to this posting, a graduate school representative from another institution shared: “It is my understanding that ProQuest is an officially designated LoC repository, so placing a copy with them fulfills the federal mandatory deposit requirement.”

Subsequent postings on this discussion thread did clear up the confusion reflected in the two comments cited above. To summarize: it is the US Copyright Office (located within the Library of Congress) that requires two copies of all US published works be deposited with them, as part of US Copyright Law [Mandatory Deposit, 17 U.S.C. section 407, ]. HOWEVER, the Copyright Office has excluded from this requirement almost all works that exist only in digital format. The one genre of work that is not excluded from mandatory deposit at this time are electronic serials. Since ETD’s are not serials (e.g, newspapers, magazines, journals and the like) they are exempt from Mandatory Deposit. Stated otherwise, two copies of an ETD do NOT have to go to the Copyright Office. All-electronic ETDs are not subject to the Mandatory Deposit rule.

Yet the myths and misunderstandings about U.S. dissertations and the Library of Congress persist. Such confusion was most recently evidenced in the following Tweet, posted last month by a Canadian librarian:

The myth represented in this Tweet is more pernicious than the one about sending two copies of an ETD to the Copyright Office under the Mandatory Deposit rule. And it appears to be alot stickier and harder to debunk. But it is in fact a piece of misinformation — one that seems to mislead people to think that US dissertations MUST go to ProQuest in order to be added to the Library of Congress. This is just not true.

What *is* true is that the Library of Congress has designated the ProQuest database of digital dissertations as “an official off-site repository for digital collections deposited in the Library of Congress.” (UMI Dissertation Publishing Preservation, Online, URL:; last accessed 1-17-2011). In essence, the Library of Congress has recognized that the ProQuest digital dissertations database is an important resource for the Library of Congress and its readers, but that said Library does not wish to obtain the digital dissertations directly in order to make use of them. They prefer to keep them offsite in a repository maintained by someone else. To that end, in 1999 they entered into a contractual arrangement with ProQuest to provide access to the ProQuest Digital Dissertations database to their onsite visitors (see LoC Policy Statement referenced above). The contract ensures that if ProQuest goes out of business, the digital dissertations held in the PQDT database will be made available to Library of Congress in some fashion. This is indeed a historic arrangement, and one that ProQuest understandably takes great pride in. But it in no way represents that LoC has designated PQDT as THE (one and only) repository for American dissertations. It in no way prevents dissertations held in other repositories from being collected by the Library of Congress.

What is also true and significant is that the Library of Congress recognizes that not all US dissertations are in the ProQuest database (ibid). Recent discussions with a collection officer at Library of Congress have confirmed their understanding that some US dissertations do reside in repositories outside Ann Arbor (Library of Congress Electronic Reference Service, November 26, 2012, Question #8148180]. A series of correspondence with Library of Congress personnel has raised the question of HOW dissertations not included in PQDT can find their way to the Library of Congress. Apparently, a working group there is considering the circumstance that US dissertation publishing now occurs via multiple channels and a variety of different digital repositories, both university and commercial. This group will share findings as the work proceeds. For now, the Library of Congress does offer the following advice on getting U.S. digital dissertations inside their walls:

In the meantime, if any of your students are concerned about registering their works for copyright purposes, I suggest that they just go ahead and follow the standard procedures outlined on the Copyright Office site – . That action, though, will not guarantee that those works will actually be added to the Library’s collection. Dissertations submitted for registration would be retained by the Copyright Office, though, for a period of time and be available for inspection.
Source: Email from Mr. Joe Puccio, Collection Development Officer, Library Services, Library of Congress, to Ms. Gail Clement, January 28, 2013.

In sum, all American dissertations are expected to be added to the Library of Congress’s collections, whether or not they are published, or distributed via a dissertation distributor, or resident in a university digital repository. The matter of getting digital dissertations to LoC is still being worked out. But in the meantime, having graduate students register their dissertations with the US Copyright Office will ensure that these unique works of scholarship are retained within the Library of Congress and made available for inspection through the US Copyright Office.

Does this posting clarify your understanding of American dissertations and the Library of Congress ? Whether yes or no, please post your comments and responses here!

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