Pre-1923 and the Public Domain: Exploring the Old to Discover the New

About a year ago I started delving into the public domain. It is seemingly endless. There are so many amazing finds. The book jackets of old alone can stop you in your tracks. Books that sold hundreds of thousands of copies in their day are collecting digital dust, just waiting to be clicked on, opened up, and zipped on to the digital device of your choice for no money at all. The cover prices are difficult to ignore, however, because it’s hard to believe hardcover books used to only cost $1.

Of course it’s important to read the hot new book by a talented new author, or to help along that hot factor by discovering and then championing under-the-radar working writers who deserve to be read more widely. But I believe it’s just as important to read books from the past, books that have been largely forgotten, written by authors who are long gone and therefore even more forgotten than their books.

There is nuance to copyright law and the public domain, but it is safe to assume that in the US, all works published before January 1, 1923, anywhere in the world, are in the public domain. After 1923, things get a little confusing, and it is definitely true that the very concept of the public domain is under threat, mainly because big business copyright holders do not want to give up the revenue streams for certain big money properties. Let’s save that topic for another time. For now, I’d like to celebrate what IS in the public domain, and focus on how to find start exploring the treasure trove.

I think it’s best to just start out with an example — Rudyard Kipling’s With The Night Mail. I’m a sucker for cool book covers. Who isn’t? I don’t know about judging books by their covers, but I most certainly judge other people, not to mention bookstores, by the book covers they feature face out on their bookshelves and coffee tables.


I’m also a sucker for poetry:


And the classics, of course:


As well as bizarre discoveries:


I’ll continue to explore the public domain, posting at both pre1923 and 52projects.

Of course you can explore and post your favorite finds on your sites and social media as well — that’s the great thing about the public domain — it belongs to all of us. Here are some great places to go hunting:

Project Gutenberg

Flickr Commons

And here are some great resources:

The Public Domain Review

Public Domain Thing

Pumpkin Donuts

Of course I had to try the seasonal pumpkin donuts from Dunkin’ Donuts. At the counter, I just asked for the pumpkin donut. I was told there was more than one, and asked, “Which one do you want?” I was just about to pick one, but that inner voice that speaks up during important moments made itself heard inside my head, and I was able to say this instead: “I’ll take both.” The guy waiting for his coffee next to me said, “That’s how you do it!” Indeed. Nice start to a gorgeous fall morning.