Thorny Reference Questions Tackled
While at the reference desk this morning, I had a gentleman come in asking if we had anything on package labels, matchbook covers, old railroad timetables, and a bunch of other stuff that sounds like total junk. He said he collects these things, and called them ephemera, a word I’ve never even heard before. I sheepishly referred him to a more experienced colleague because this is something they didn’t cover in my reference work class back in library school. Please Reddy, clue me in on this!
Baffled in Buffalo, NY
As the late comedian George Carlin once said: “Junk is the stuff we throw away and stuff is the junk we keep.” Regardless of which side of the fence your patrons are on, the important thing to remember is the underlying concept, namely, things that were originally designed to be disposable, but that some deem worthy of preservation. For you linguists out there, the word “ephemera” stems from “ephemeral,” meaning of a transitory nature.
You’re in luck, Baffled, because there are some pretty good information sources out there that you might consider adding to your collection. One is Maurice Rickards’s Encyclopedia of Ephemera (Routledge, 2000), a hefty volume that has more than a few surprises. Topics covered include old advertisements (some were quite literally works of art), bookmarks and bookplates (both dear to a librarian’s heart), and restaurant menus and bumper stickers, to name just a few. Entries give detailed descriptions of the history, use, and purpose of these mostly paper products, while the numerous black-and-white illustrations provide a clear idea of what the physical items look like. A helpful appendix lists “Collections and Societies,” while an ample bibliography lists other reference works, journals, etc.
Keep in mind that any subject, no matter how narrowly focused, has subcategories and specialties. For example, certain foodies are interested only in fruit and vegetable labels, or collectors of antiques may want information on packaging concerning a specific brand. For these folks, the following glossy tome is practically custom made: Ralph and Terry Kovel’s The Label Made Me Buy It: From Aunt Jemima to Zonkers—The Best-Dressed Boxes, Bottles, and Cans from the Past (Crown, 1998). This husband-and-wife author team are nationally known collectibles experts and have cranked out dozens of books on the objects of their passion. The lavish full-color illustrations are stunning, but a caveat is in order: These items are a reflection of a less-enlightened era, when casual racial epithets and gender stereotyping were accepted societal norms. If you can get past that, there are more than a few chuckles to be had at some of the cute and/or corny brand names (depending on your attitude toward word play), such as “U Li Kit” and “Tri-A-Can,” which were meant to help sell everything from exotic perfumes to everyday staples such as breakfast cereal. The book’s chapters are arranged by theme: “Patriotic Symbols,” “Dogs and Cats,” “Sports,” and other visual motifs that manufacturers used to persuade consumers of the superiority of their products.
Don’t forget electronic resources, too. The Ephemera Society (“a nonprofit body concerned with the collection, conservation, study and educational uses of handwritten and printed ephemera”) maintains a wonderful database (ephemera-society.org.uk). Clicking on the “links” button leads to a lengthy list of “other organizations,” “museums and libraries,” “archives and collections,” and “online resources.”
Another great source is our very own Library of Congress, which has been collecting this stuff since forever. Around 28,000 items spanning three centuries of American life can be perused free at memory.loc.gov/ammem/rbpehtml/. This is part of the library’s “American Memory” project that seeks to provide “…free and open access through the Internet to written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience.” Talk about your tax dollars at work! I’ve only been able to hint at the vast store of ephemeral resources available, so be sure to consult my handy-dandy “cheat sheet” at ow.ly/vCbj1 to locate more good stuff. And remember my slogan: Reference Rocks!
Michael F. Bemis is the author of Library and Information Science: A Guide to Key Literature and Sources (ALA Editions, 2014).