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Catching and describing the passing breeze

March 11th, 2020 By Barbara Lyon

Collecting ephemera

Ephemera, ‘relating to the day’, published to be of transitory use and then thrown away — such material creates a challenge for the librarian or archivist. How to collect and preserve ephemera for future researchers? Thankfully, the Library is rising to the challenge, now not only in analogue formats but in the digital environment.

Archaeological midden

Aristotle used the word ‘ephemeron’ to describe the mayfly which lives only for a day and must carry out its destined role in that time. Likewise, ephemeral publications must perform their role immediately, before becoming irrelevant or ineffectual for their immediate purpose.

Ephemera may advertise, persuade, grant access, instruct, and thereby affect the daily lives of their users, or be instrumental in shaping history. They are primary rather than secondary sources.

After their day of usefulness, they are usually thrown out and discarded.

Therefore, looking through the collections that remain is somewhat akin to trawling through an archaeological midden to discover the habits and everyday life of past civilisations.

Paper ticket showing group of children skating at the indoor rink on roller skates. There is damage to the upper left corner of the paper ticket.
A ticket or invitation to the Columbia Roller Skating Rink in Wellington [1887]. Ref: Eph-A-SKATING-1887-01. Alexander Turnbull Library. You can see the reverse side here.

Donation-driven collecting plan

It’s been my privilege and pleasure to look after and promote the Alexander Turnbull Library’s Ephemera Collection. To look for relevant current and past material to add to the collection, and to ensure that its presence in the Library is documented so that present and future researchers can make use of it.

The Ephemera Collection aims to have its finger on the nation’s pulse, collecting current print and digital content as well as historical material, through donations and purchases. In this endeavour we are greatly assisted by the people who donate material, often on a regular basis.

A collection is born

The Ephemera Collection was formally established in around 1978, when any previously held material not quite fitting into manuscript, book or fine art formats was brought together as the foundation of the new collection.

A schema of subject location headings allowed the material to be organised and browsed without the need for detailed, individual, item-level cataloguing.

In 1991 when I began looking after it, the collection numbered around 90,000 items, and the figure has more than doubled since then.

3 images side by side, a woman in a swimming costume, a poster in support of closing bars with its 'vote for six' slogan in red and the menu for the Oceanic Steamship Company's farewell dinner honoring passengers disembarking in Auckland showing an Art Deco depiction of a sailboat on the cover.
1. Timaru by the sea / Railways Studios [1936-1937]. Ref: Eph-E-TOURISM-1937-01 2. New Zealand Alliance for the Abolition of the Liquor Traffic. Ref: Eph-D-ALCOHOL-Hours-1949-01-1 3. Menu from the Oceanic Steamship Company farewell dinner honoring passengers disembarking in Auckland. Ref: Eph-A-SHIP-1934-02. Alexander Turnbull Library

Cataloguing history

At first, access to the Collection depended largely on the mind-map of the part-time Ephemera Librarian and partial indexing in a card catalogue. Gradually, finding aids moved online and expanded. In the early 1990s, the Library’s TAPUHI catalogue for the Unpublished Collections came into being and by the mid-1990s, the Library began digitising images for the online database Timeframes.

TAPUHI’s capacity to describe collections hierarchically made it suitable as a tool for describing the Ephemera Collection as we wanted to describe it in subject chunks with subdivision to more specific items where required.

Inevitably then, online description of the Ephemera Collection began at the level of individual images to be loaded on to Timeframes, while researchers’ in-house needs were served by personally visiting the Ephemera Room to browse folders of subject-relevant material.

Over the intervening quarter of a century, we have worked towards the goal of linking descriptions of individual images to their “parent” folder and upwards. This work is vital for researchers who cannot visit and browse the collection, and must depend on the database’s descriptive records for access to the material.

The work is by no means complete; probably half of the collection remains undocumented in its detail, although subject location headings will enable library staff to help researchers pin down material they need.

3 images side by side. a rabbit in a box, a bottle of mile a woman holding a basket with lemons in it.
1. Marcus Ward & Company Ltd: With love and best wishes for a happy birthday, 1887. Ref: Eph-A-CARDS-McLeod-B-1887-01 2. Introducing to the citizens of Wellington some information re its milk supply [ca 1925-1934]. Ref: Eph-A-MILK-1930-01 3. Only fresh lemons make real lemonade [1920s?] Ref: Eph-D-FRUIT-1920s-02. Alexander Turnbull Library

Future ephemera

More recently, functions of ephemera are being carried out online and in born-digital form. The Library is taking steps to ensure this kind of ephemera is being captured and stored, too — not on shelves but on servers. The future will see researchers using a combination of sources to complete research on their chosen topic.

Over the last four to five years I have been posting regularly to a Tumblr page. Surfacing the Ephemera Collection on this platform has broadened its reach and found new fans. The items shared above are just a few of the images that have received the most ‘likes’ on Tumblr.

Ephemera Tumblr page

All images used on Tumblr (and indeed on the National Library’s own site) must be out of copyright. This means that a very great number of wonderful images less than 50 years old are not yet visible online to the public, including protest images from the 1970s and 1980s, and a significant collection of popular music posters.

However, some of these in-copyright items have been digitised and these digital copies can be viewed in the secure Katherine Mansfield Reading Room in the Turnbull Library, Wellington. All other items can be seen in person, by appointment.

As the years go by, these too will come out of copyright and eventually become available through the National Library website and Tumblrs of tomorrow.

Like to donate

Visit our Donations page to find out more about donating to the Alexander Turnbull Library collections.

Use the Ask a Librarian service if you have items that you would like to donate.

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