Ephemera. The word itself evokes romantic images of days gone by, or movie-scene flashbacks of simpler times and black-and-white nostalgia. It’s one of my favorite words.
In the archives world, ephemera are materials that are created with the intention of being discarded. Examples include catalogs, matchbooks, ticket stubs, flyers, notepads and event programs.
Despite their impermanency, however, these are the items that people often find most fascinating, and they also serve a multitude of purposes. There are a number of reasons you might consider the retention of ephemera for your organization.
Event invitations and programs like these are designed to serve a specific purpose at a specific point in time, then discarded. But they enjoy a second life as part of an organization’s archives, where they can communicate the organization’s history and values far into the future.
If you have ever interacted with the Trust, you know that we often have events for donors, organizations and community members. We make an effort to save two copies of each printed item created for every event. Usually this is just an event program, but depending on the occasion it could also include a menu, an event map or floor plan, a place setting card or a program booklet.
We save these materials because they go a long way in illustrating an event’s objectives, the look and feel of its branding and marketing and other contextual information that is important to the attendees, such as speaker biographies, collaborative partnerships and organizational information. If it’s important enough to be communicated in the event’s literature, it will be useful information in the future.
As the Trust’s objectives and practices evolve, these pieces of ephemera serve as artefactual evidence of that growth. You will find that your own organization’s ephemera will be just as useful to your future staff and community.
Every employee probably has a small stack of items they’ve kept only because it felt wrong to throw them out. This is a good opportunity to help your colleagues with some cleaning up, while helping your institution by preserving materials.
In addition to providing information, these items often provide an illustration of how times have changed. For example, a ticket to a screening of a movie in the 1920s may state two titles, shown as a double feature—something we no longer have. And it may show a price of just a nickel or two, illustrating the difference in the value of money between yesterday and today. In today’s highly visual culture, artifacts like this can have a greater impact than a list of facts. Would you rather read a description of a movie ticket, or see the ticket itself?
Eventually, ephemera may serve as a relic. In the Trust archives, we have a calling card of Albert Harris, our founder. Calling cards fell out of fashion in the early 20th century. Upon making a visit (“calling on” a friend or colleague), you would hand the card to the person who answered the door, thereby announcing your arrival.
Albert Harris, the Trust’s founder, with his daughter Martha in their carriage, circa 1914.
It is fun to imagine Mr. Harris, in his vest and jacket, strolling up the walkway of a stately home in Chicago, ringing the doorbell and handing his calling card to the butler. Maybe he used it upon soliciting potential donors or when talking to someone about joining the advisory board (known today as the Executive Committee).
How can your organization keep ephemera for future reference?
To begin, just gather all of the ephemeral materials that you have in your office, and ask your coworkers to give you theirs. Every employee probably has a small stack of items they’ve kept only because it felt wrong to throw them out. This is a good opportunity to help your colleagues with some cleaning up, while helping your institution by preserving materials.
Next, store them in a dedicated file folder to keep things as simple as possible. Arrange them in chronological order, and have a folder for each year. Tell your colleagues to bring these items to you, and before long, collecting these materials will be a habit. As your organization expands and matures, you’ll be glad to have them.