Ephemera and the Academic Community

Some people from the academic community have been slow catching up with ephemera. How many of us have listened to dry lectures in history class that could have been enlivened by the imaginative use and interpretation of what Maurice Rickards called "minor transient documents of everyday life," otherwise known as ephemera? How many of us remember art history classes where the teacher showed slides of paintings all period long without once acknowledging the artwork of colorful printed ephemera?

Archaeologists, though, have embraced the use of paper ephemera for generations. In 1977, the late James Deetz, then on the faculty of Brown University, published a short but thought provoking book entitled In Small Things Forgotten: the Archaeology of Early American Life. Deetz pointed out that historical archaeologists needed to work in tandem with related but dissimilar sets of information in order to ferret out truths about the past. Specifically, he mentioned using estate inventories, building contracts, and such court records as coroners' inquests--all splendid examples of ephemera.

Judging from what has been published over the years, the English have been leaders in the appreciation of ephemera. Perhaps because of a heightened sense of history, English authors and publishers have issued books on advertising, tradesmen's cards, prints, graphic design, and a host of other topics that have educated readers for decades. In addition, the Centre for Ephemera Studies at the University of Reading offers students a special resource for their studies; as well, any researcher who might benefit from the Centre's holdings is welcome to use the collection. The Centre also sponsors twice yearly seminars that attract representatives from such places as the Victoria and Albert Museum, Guildhall, National Portrait Gallery, Kew Gardens, and Oxford University's Bodleian Library.

American academicians, however, have lately latched on to ephemera. In the spring of 2001, the University of Virginia's Rare Book School first offered a course on printed ephemera. "Underpinning the course," says the school's catalog, "is the view that ephemera deserves serious attention from business and social historians, and from those with curatorial responsibilities for collections of paper-based materials." Representatives from the Library of Virginia, the New York Academy of Medicine, the Library of Congress, the Huntington Library, and Yale University attended. The founder of Rare Book School, university professor Terry Belanger, said that libraries have collected ephemeral material for a long time, in part because collectors give it to them and in part because of their own special collections interests. The teaching faculty, he believes, is becoming more interested in using ephemera for research and classroom lectures, especially what has survived from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Librarians are learning to organize ephemera. Not too long ago an Internet listserv devoted to archival practice and standards featured a discussion on how to "arrange, describe, catalog, and otherwise provide access to pamphlets, brochures, posters, memorabilia, and ephemera." A special collections librarian from the Pikes Peak Library District in Colorado initiated the discussion, and suggestions came from individuals from, among other places, the Bentley Historical Library Archives at the University of Michigan, the University of West Florida, and Harvard University. Interestingly enough, each place had a different way of handling ephemera. At the Bentley Library, staff created a vertical file organized by the collecting interests of the archives, librarians at Harvard drafted a fairly lengthy policy statement on cataloging and arrangement procedures, and at West Florida, staff created an annotated bibliography of ephemera to record what they had.

Institutions are announcing when ephemera is added to their research collections, hoping that the publicity will lead to increased use, and exhibition curators are proudly proclaiming the importance of ephemera. For example, the library at Washington University, located in St. Louis, recently issued a press release to say that it had acquired a collection of rare arts and crafts books and ephemera representing the publishing activities of the Kelmscott, Doves, and Ashendene presses. In Florida, at the Bienes Center for the Literary Arts, ephemera played an important part in a recent show on drapetomania, a disease named in 1854 by a Louisiana physician that purported to explain why blacks ran away from "service."

With increasing interest in ephemera throughout the academic community, research libraries, and in exhibits, the future of "minor transient documents of everyday life" seems very promising indeed.

E. Richard McKinstry
Past President

[This article originally appeared in the Northeast Journal of Antiques & Art.]

   © 2011 The Ephemera Society of America