Kathleen McCook’s post about Ephemera on her eclectic and fascinating blog, Ebla to E-Books: The Preservation and Annihilation of Memory highlights the vast scope of printed ephemera. They include, listed in alphabetical order (as behoves a librarian!) everything from air transport labels; bank checks; bingo cards; and bookmarks to QSL cards; receipts; sheet music; stamps; theatre programmes; ticket stubs; and valentines.
Some personal ephemera
I’ve collected quite a lot of these (except valentines) over the years. Some have no earthly use. But I have a collection of airline boarding passes, which turned out to be useful when an American government agency demanded from me a complete list of all my visits to the USA (26 to date) with dates of arrival and departure. In the USA one’s passport is or was stamped on arrival but not when departing, which makes it quite difficult to reconstruct that part of one’s history. I had also kept all my old passports, mainly for sentimental reasons. Was I simply taking the requirement too seriously? In the USA people get sent to jail for telling lies to government agencies (but not when they lie to the public on a monumental scale while campaigning for high office), and how am I to know whether that government has kept tabs on me over the 41 years since I first travelled to that county? The thought of a steely-eyed immigration officer checking on her computer screen and asking me where I was on November 16, 1986, made my blood run cold. More seriously, this exercise in personal history was quite interesting and may be useful if I ever get round to writing my memoirs.
On the other hand I no longer have “bank checks” or the stubs of my old cheque books. (Here we use the English of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, not American English.) In South Africa we no longer use cheques. Bank transactions are done electronically. It’s faster, saves the banks money, and it’s more secure. While our banking sector may be more advanced than that in the USA, our postal service is not. It is slow and unreliable, and postal items that look as if they may contain something of value are liable to be opened by dishonest persons. I envy the assurance with which my American and Dutch friends entrust their business to their respective post offices, knowing that what they post today will be delivered the next day, or a day or two later. Be nice to a postman, while you still can.
Neither do I still have the QSL cards I collected in my teens by dint of spending late nights and early morning hours hunched over my shortwave radio listening for elusive stations drifting in through the crackle of static. That was before transistors came into widespread use, and my radio receiver, which worked with vacuum tubes or “valves” got quite hot, especially if this was done under a blanket to avoid annoying my parents. In those days I was what was called a DXer, an enthusiast who listens to foreign radio stations and tries to tally as many different countries as possible. (DX is the telegraphic abbreviation for “distance” or “distant”. Kathleen recently blogged about DXing too, but mine was of the passive variety, receiving only, not sending.) If you could identify the station and its radio frequency, you sent a postcard to that station telling them when you heard it and giving them a reception report. In exchange they might send you a QSL card as proof, and sometimes some other goodies. (QSL stands for “I confirm receipt of your transmission”.) Once I had the temerity to send a reception report to Radio Prague in then Communist Czechoslovakia. When the QSL card arrived, my parents were alarmed. This mail from a communist county could have brought us under suspicion from our own repressive government.
Why keep invoices or receipts? Payments are recorded on my bank and credit card statements. I scan receipts for the purchase of more durable items in case they break or fail during the warranty period. The paper receipts, along with invoices and other records of my private commercial dealings are shredded, and the PDF files can be deleted after a while. “Can be” is the operative verb. Many items may accumulate and clog up my computer files before I find the time and energy to weed them. Time, the physical deterioration of computer media, and the ultimate obsolescence of my computer software and hardware will take care of that in the end. Tough luck for a future biographer.
Why collect and preserve?
All of this gives pause for thought. Why do we cling to all these bits of paper? In some cases they serve as mementos: a Paris Métro ticket as a souvenir of Paris, boarding passes as souvenirs of our travels, entrance tickets of a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Alte Pinakothek. Art galleries are aware of this. That is why their tickets often bear a small image of a famous painting. We are less likely to throw away beautiful things. Hence, non-philatelists keep envelopes with pretty postage stamps. Maybe we cling to these random objects – scraps of proof of our existence – in mute resistance to the passing of time.
Many other items are not preserved with conscious intent. They select themselves, forgotten somewhere in the pages of a book, in a pocket of an unused garment, or stapled to a garment taken for dry cleaning, the latter being the classical clue for detectives to identify the wearer. My experience suggests that unless they belonged to a person whose significance happened to be recognized in their own time, such ephemeral evidence is subject to random forces of large-scale destruction which do not spare unique or valuable items. It’s just as well. The vast amount of ephemera produced or accumulated by each individual would make biographical and historical investigation well-nigh impossible. Random preservation leaves room for luck and serendipity.
Should cultural agencies therefore collect such items? If so, how many? Everything, for ever? Or selectively, and if so, on what basis? I am reminded of discussions in the late 1990s among national library directors in the Conference of Directors of National Libraries, debating the legal deposit of web-based digital resources. My Norwegian colleague Ben Rugaas captured the dilemma in a paper entitled “The end of all and for ever” (Rugaas 1988; 1990). The sheer volume of electronic publications and the legal and technical complexities of harvesting them for preservation by national libraries remain a challenging problem (Stephens and Gibby 2011; 2012; Gooding and Terras 2020). So much of the Web is ephemeral and hard to capture, as is illustrated by the fate of the Twitter Archive of the Library of Congress (Bruns 2018) and the difficulties presented by President Trump’s prolific tweeting (Forgey 2021). Personally, I still believe that adults should not tweet, but in Trump’s case, his tweets should probably be preserved as a record of his tumultuous and intemperate presidency. As for the millions created daily by the hoi polloi, maybe a sample should be taken regularly, to reflect the issues and attitudes of the times.
Underlying the questions relating to both electronic and printed ephemera are an age-old problem confronting librarians, archivists and museologists: faced with the passing of time, the short life-span of most of the records of our existence, and limited resources, what to preserve? These decisions concern the past, the present, and the future. We select in the present that which in the future will serve as evidence of the past. Our selection is based on our present understanding of the past – an understanding which evolves with each passing generation – and on what we currently anticipate will be of value in the future.
To the extent that they curate heritage, librarians live in the present, on a tightrope between the past and the future.
Bruns, Axel. 2018. “The Library of Congress Twitter Archive: A Failure of Historic Proportions.” DMRC at Large (blog). January 10, 2018. https://medium.com/dmrc-at-large/the-library-of-congress-twitter-archive-a-failure-of-historic-proportions-6dc1c3bc9e2c.
Forgey, Quint. 2021. “National Archives Can’t Resurrect Trump’s Tweets, Twitter Says.” POLITICO. April 7, 2021. https://www.politico.com/news/2021/04/07/twitter-national-archives-realdonaldtrump-479743.
Gooding, Paul, and Melissa Terras. 2020. Electronic Legal Deposit. Shaping the Library Collections of the Future. London: Facet Publishing.
Rugaas, Bendik. 1988. “The End of All and Forever: On the Acquisition Policies of National Libraries and the Future of Legal Deposit Material.” Conference paper presented at the 54th IFLA General Conference, Sydney, Australia, 30 August to 3 September 1988, Sydney.
———. 1990. “Legal Deposit and Bibliographic Control of New Media in Europe.” LIBER Bulletin 35: 156–70.
Stephens, Andy, and Richard Gibby. 2011. “National Implementations of Electronic Legal Deposit.” Alexandria: The Journal of National and International Library and Information Issues 22 (1): 53–67.
———. 2012. “National Implementations of Legal Deposit.” Alexandria 23 (2): 15–39. https://doi.org/10.7227/ALX.23.2.3.