- State of the DisciplineThrowaway History: Towards a Historiography of Ephemera
The papyrologist, Oxford University Press printer, and collector John Johnson (1882–1956) once described his collection—one of the earliest of ephemera ever acquired by a major library—as "everything which a museum or library would not ordinarily accept if it were offered as a gift." Johnson's collection,1 which contained thousands of examples of printed, non-book material, including bus tickets, calling cards, cigar bands, broadsides, and campaign pamphlets, was acquired by the Bodleian Library at Oxford University in 1968. Johnson was not underestimating the attitudes of cultural institutions at the time. In a foreword to a catalog published in conjunction with a 1971 exhibition of Johnson's collection, Robert Shackleton, former Librarian of the Bodleian Library, wrote that "it was often thought below the dignity of a learned library to acquire or to retain the casual and sub-literary products of the printing press." The acquisition of the Johnson Collection represented a sea change in attitudes towards printed non-book materials, which, by 1971, Shackleton could confidently write, "were now accepted as valuable evidence for the historian."2 The continued safekeeping of the Bodleian's John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera embodies a move to embrace ephemera as part of the historical record in cultural institutions that first occurred in the 1960s, and has continued since. Today, the Johnson Collection stands as one of the most historically significant collections of materials assembled with one common feature—a tendency to be thrown away.
Johnson's example is useful in understanding the challenges of writing a historiography of ephemera and illuminates two of the greatest difficulties therein. The first of these challenges is definitional. Ephemera is a synthetic term applied inconsistently over time by historians and collection stewards. The literature produced by cultural historians over the last seventy years points to the ambiguity of the term, which has meant different things to [End Page 244] collectors, librarians, and historians. The second major challenge is categorical. Ephemera includes a wide range of materials, and within the larger category, ephemera's subgenres have their own historiographic trajectories. The recognition that early printed broadsides might be enlightening for historians of political history and printing history came much earlier than, for example, the realization that a dance token might also be read as a primary source.
The Johnson anecdote also illustrates the institutional shift in attitudes towards collecting non-book printed material. The charge to preserve and describe ephemeral material was led by collectors, who organized and published on their collections in the 1960s and 1970s. Their work drew notice from historians and cultural institutions, who saw potential in the collection of non-book printed artifacts to answer historical questions. The move to include ephemera in a body of primary source materials worthy of closer examination first occurred in the separate but history-adjacent field of library and collection management, driven in part by a recognition of the needs of historical researchers. As libraries acquired, described, and promoted access to ephemeral materials, the work of historians on non-print book material has grown exponentially. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, consideration of ephemeral materials has been more fully integrated into social, cultural, and political histories. This essay will track twentieth-century approaches to the study of ephemera by historians and collection stewards, charting the transition to a more inclusive valuation of ephemera and an increased recognition of its relevance for historical researchers over time. But first, an understanding of the definitional and categorical slipperiness of the term ephemera over time is crucial to this study.
Ephemera, the noun, is a twentieth-century term used by collection stewards and historians to describe a range of non-print book material that was not built to last. The original use of the word, however, dates much earlier, and comes from the Greek epi, around, and hemera, day. From the beginning, ephemera's etymology pointed to the low expectations for its survival. Samuel Johnson is frequently cited as the originator of the use of ephemerae in 1751 in a print context to mean "the papers of the day" in reference to...