ephemera 11.30.2007, 1:07 AM
posted by sebastian mary
I had dinner last night with an elderly and eminent print collector and art historian. He specialises in the eighteenth century - the period when the quantity of text being produced last exploded by an order of magnitude - and embodies many of the assumptions of that period. The printed word is always meaningful; all printed matter is precious; even the minutiae of history are worth preserving.
So when not writing authoritative texts on engravings of Stubbs, he collects ephemera. To the uninitiated, that's postcards, leaflets, adverts - basically anything printed, however trivial it might seem - and delivers great sacks of the stuff to the Bodleian Library at intervals to be sifted and, if deemed important, archived.
I tried to imagine what it would be like attempting to keep up with modern-day ephemera. I asked him: in an era of mass desktop self-publishing, is it even conceivable or possible to try and keep up? How can one collect and archive such stuff? He said they usually only take stuff from periods up to around the '50s or '60s as a rule. But somewhat to my surprise, he insisted that ephemera was more important today than ever, precisely because of computers: "Sooner or later anything on a computer gets erased. If we don't collect some print how will anyone know what happened?".
I'm not sure that delivering sacks of home-printed yoga adverts and party invitations to the Bodleian Library is the answer. But it did make me pause. While pamphlets, books and other ephemera give us some clue as to what life was like three centuries ago, what provisions are we making for our own mass memory? Will this neophiliac digital culture be stored on the future equivalent of floppy drives, only to end up becoming just as swiftly obsolete and unreadable? Answers on a postcard.
Christopher Miles on December 2, 2007 8:25 PM:
Assuming the Wayback Machine survives for centuries to come, future generations will at least be able to look back at the online world of the late 20th/early 21st century and either laugh, cry or (more likely) frown with puzzlement.
And there's always the possibility that trojans and keyloggers are archiving the contents of our hard drives for posterity (if Google isn't doing it already). Wouldn't it be nice if spyware turned out to be the digital equivalent of medieval book-hoarding monks?
Marty Weil on December 6, 2007 4:19 PM:
The BBC's Charles Stross has written on this very topic. His thought-provoking essay on BBC News illustrates how today's electronic ephemera will become a boon for tomorrow's historians, if they can handle the load. A link to Stross' post (along with my commentary) can be found on ephemera.