A New Life for Forgotten Things
One often stumbles upon ephemera—those items, like pamphlets and postcards, designed only to last a short while—in the recesses of secondhand bookstores or at flea markets, stacked up wildly in crates and hardly cared for at all. Now they’ll be available in a new location, where, hopefully, they’ll be easier to peruse: online.
Dumbarton Oaks is pleased to announce the launch of its online Ephemera Archive, a tool that makes available to a wide audience the institution’s extensive and growing ephemera holdings. The Ephemera Collection comprises postcards, magazine pages, pamphlets, trade cards, and other materials related to Dumbarton Oaks’ three programs of study: Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape studies.
The catalog’s launch culminates two years of work on the ephemera project, an initiative started in 2015 to collect, catalog, preserve, and display institutionally relevant ephemera. Materials in the Dumbarton Oaks collection are typically taken from a fairly narrow time period—approximately 1890 to 1920—that coincides with a boom in printed ephemera production.
Lain Wilson, Dumbarton Oaks’ digital content manager, believes the catalog will open up a number of research possibilities: “It’s really going to serve students, scholars, and interested amateurs who want to look at these subject areas from the particular angle of their reception during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.”
For Wilson, who helped to develop the catalog’s interface, the value of ephemera lies in their ability to communicate subjective worldviews. “Ephemera reveal how people—some people—a hundred years ago viewed and valued monuments, places, and practices, many of which are still present, studied, and visited today.”
Behind the catalog lies meticulous research and labor. After images are carefully scanned and uploaded, they must be described with metadata (that is, data that describes other data, rendering it usable and searchable), an arduous process that can involve transcribing captions or translating the handwritten notes on postcards. And even after all of this information has been obtained and logged, ambiguities and unknowns often remain.
“One big challenge is that with a lot of our items, especially the postcards, we don’t have a lot of data to begin with,” says Lane Baker, a postgraduate research fellow in ephemera. “Though the items might be in great condition when we acquire them, with plenty of clues that suggest they’re from this or that period, it’s sometimes difficult to track down their provenance in a way that would be ideal for researchers.”
Even if the printer or photographer responsible for a particular postcard can be identified, there’s often little more information to be found. “Sometimes, these postcards were literally just the result of an amateur photographer snapping a picture and dropping it off with a friend who ran a local print shop, who’d then print them, just for that shop, and sell them to tourists,” Baker explains. “That sort of thing really doesn’t leave much of a paper trail to research.”
Regardless, the image remains, and perhaps even gains from the utter obscurity of its origins. Examining a postcard of the ruins of Tiahuanaco in Bolivia—a set of capsized stones half-sunk in a broad field—it’s difficult not to consider the combination of circumstances that brought it into existence. As an activity, however, this wondering quickly flounders. Though we know the name of the publishing house that produced the card (Arnó Hermanos Editores), the rest—the identity of the man posed on the stones or the individual behind the camera, the date the image was taken—is mystery.
Ultimately, the academic purposes to which the catalog can be put shouldn’t obscure the more fundamental pleasures of ephemera-gazing. Without exception, the ephemera collected by Dumbarton Oaks present some sort of joy to the eye, whether that means a beautiful tableau or a strange one, an accurate depiction of the past or a skewed one. A brightly colored image of the Tuileries Gardens, sparsely walked by soberly dressed strollers, adorns one card, while the Dome of the Rock dominates another, surmounted by a garish holiday message in flowing red script.
For now, the online catalog displays a selection of Dumbarton Oaks’ ephemera holdings, though items will continue to be added as they’re acquired and logged. “The nice thing is, not only does the catalog introduce people to ephemera,” Baker explains, “but it might also help us expand the collection by attracting the attention of dealers or people with collections of their own.”
As far as the health of the collection is concerned, Dumbarton Oaks finds itself in a good position. The diversity of research fields at Dumbarton Oaks allows for both focused and wide-ranging collecting. “Of course, we’re trying to remain focused on our institutional interests,” says Baker, “but we want to do that while also being expansive in the types of ephemera we search for, acquire, and use.”