The word ephemera comes from the Greek word ‘ephemeros’, meaning ‘lasting but a day,’ and so ephemera refers to anything transitory, short lived, or not meant to last. From a collector’s point of view, these items are treasured because of their temporary status, regardless of their age. While there are many interpretations (or definitions) of ‘what is ephemera’ by collectors themselves, many people consider paper to be a key component.
Paper in and of itself is flimsy enough to lead a short-lived life and many ‘everyday’ items of seemingly little consequence are on paper. When one thinks of ephemera, one thinks of such things as matchbooks, postcards, receipts, bills, brochures, photographs, flyers, stickers, advertising, packaging, letters, etcetera. The things most of us throw away on a daily basis.
Again, these items need not be old to have value to collectors and historians. The thrill of collecting lies in the combination of the story the items tell, the rarity due to their temporary nature, and ironically, the lack of interest by the general population to see any value in the items at all. Because these are things not meant to be saved, ephemera literally is the treasure picked from the trash of another.
Given this sort of a definition of ephemera, I see a new area in ephemera collecting: digital ephemera.
Today, technology and the Internet offer us new possibilities of ephemera. I don’t refer to paper print-outs of emails, websites, and document searches, but to the digital format of these things themselves.
Many libraries and universities are creating digital collections. This allows them to keep material without the storage and maintenance issues paper requires. But there is more to the digital world than the mere preserving of paper and saving of space. There is tangible in the seemingly intangible: for example, entertainment.
MP3s are now just another means of listening to music–as were Edison cylinders, vinyl LPs, bootleg recordings, and CDs. Will MP3s be valued for themselves? Many music collectors currently covet digital duplicates of rare recordings they would otherwise never be able to obtain, but perhaps MP3s themselves will charm collectors on their own, as will other sound, game, and video file formats. And why not? There are so many small bands, performance artists, flash animators, game hobbyists, etcetera, which work in digital mediums–with many works not available in any other format. (Or at least so few copies are made, and many are considered ‘toss-able’ too, to make for nary a one to be found in a decade!) What will happen to them as technology advances? Surely not all will be converted to the new media.
Think back and remember Beta video, early Laserdisc movies, and even the early silent films themselves… Not all of these were preserved, let alone copied to the latest technology. It would be vain and naive to think all of today’s films and other forms of entertainment would be saved when many of the great (and not-so-great) creations of the past have not.
I’d like to believe collectors will jump in and do the preserving.
The folks behind the Wayback Machine must feel similarly, for they now archive moving images, text, audio and software along with websites. I imagine soon others will feel even more passionate and not only expand the categories, but will take it upon themselves to collect and store what appeals to them the most, ‘art’ or not.
The ephemera collector not only preserves the art of the past, but they collect the mundane items too. Will databases and spreadsheets be as collectible as catalogs and ledgers? Will blogs be as desirable as diaries? Will signature lines, emoticons, avatars and chat room conversations be added to the collections of business cards, calling cards, photos, and correspondence? Aren’t the Flash intros to corporate websites as valuable as their brochures? Aren’t the skyscraper and banner ads as relevant as any other advertising? (Think of all that has already been lost to document the dot.com boom and bomb!) If one can find paper Walmart receipts riveting, then isn’t the opportunity to save spam, in its original format, equally as illuminating or entertaining?
I envision that in the not-too-distant future, there will be digital ephemera collectors as diligently saving the mundane scraps of our digital existence as paper folks do now—only instead of protecting fragile paper in acid-free scrapbooks free from sunlight, these digital collections will require special archival needs of their own.
As technology changes, our definition of ephemera may not change–but it will surely expand. There must be collectors eager to gather our now-new technology as it becomes the retro stuff of yesterday, the vintage data of nostalgic memory, and even the quaint antiques of times gone by.