What is ephemera?

Stemming from the plural form of the Greek word ephemeron, meaning something that lasts through a day, the definition of and articles associated with ephemera have evolved over the centuries. The preeminent ephemerist Maurice Rickards defined it as “minor transient documents of everyday life,” while The Ephemera Society of America expands this notion to describe the material as “a broad range of minor (and sometimes major) everyday documents intended for one-time or short-term use.” Within libraries, in terms of collection management ephemera represents the materials, often mixed-media, that do not fit into the well-established categories of book, manuscript, visual material, or artifact. Nonetheless, these “transient documents,” along with the more permanent materials constructed from them, like scrapbooks and albums, serve not only as sources of striking imagery but also as primary evidence in the reconstruction of popular movements and visual cultures.

Ephemera–in the form of playbills, tickets, forms, broadsides, and fliers–was destined to be filed away, thrown in the trash, or recycled. Its short life cycle was often belied, however, by its visual impact, created through judicious choices of typeface, color, and graphics. At work, at home, and on the streets, old and young, rich and poor participated in a vibrant popular culture whose medium was printed ephemera.

Today, the surviving remnants of previous generations can seem disconcertingly familiar and mundane…but also sensational. The intentionally eye-catching miscellany of yesteryear proves endlessly engaging. And by providing a captivating window into the ordinary lives of our predecessors, these disposable scraps have become indispensable resources.

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