From October 2005 through March 2006, I worked with ephemera in one of the great libraries of the world, the Bodleian at the University of Oxford. A cheeky person might say that “ephemera” is just a fancy term for trash. However, given the passage of time, even trash can become terribly interesting.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ephemera as something that has a transitory existence. Printed ephemera may be items, such as broadsides, chapbooks, bus tickets, menus, playbills, and lists, to name just a few categories, that were not intended survive their immediate use. As most printed ephemera were not saved, what does remain can reveal facets of everyday life that are not otherwise documented.

For example, an 18th-century British grocer’s list can tell us what was available in a given shop in a certain location at a particular period in history, how merchants ran their businesses, the prices for individual goods, how printers reproduced such lists, and so on. A collection of such lists would allow a researcher to trace changes in taste, the introduction of new products and technologies, and the development of transportation systems. One such list that I came across in the Bodleian is that of John Watkinson, Grocer, Tea Dealer in Newbrough, Scarbrough (ca. 1750). Mr. Watkinson sold a range of interesting goods: six types of sugar, morel mushrooms, truffles, gun powder, flints, five kinds of hair powder, five varieties of snuff, and a range of drugs (to name just a few).

During my time at the Bodleian, I focused my attention on one type of ephemera, the chapbook. Chapbooks, according to the noted bibliographer John Carter, are “small pamphlets of popular, sensational, juvenile, moral or educational character, originally distributed by chapmen or hawkers, not by booksellers.” We know from publishers’ records that millions of chapbooks were printed during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, though the great majority have not survived. Today, even the largest chapbook collections number only several thousand items.

At a conference on chapbooks I attended in London, Simon Eliot, professor of publishing and printing history, Reading University and London University, provided the following metaphor for chapbooks. Architectural historians agree that it is usually the finest examples of architecture from a given period that have survived. The shanties, hovels, and lean-tos from the past have largely disappeared. Chapbooks are to printed books what those hovels from the past were to more substantial buildings.

Along with broadsides and ballads, chapbooks were some of the most widely distributed forms of popular printed entertainment. Often sloppily printed, they were published on a wide range of topics intended to please a broad audience. As they were so inexpensive—generally a penny—and were readily available even in the most remote villages across the United Kingdom due to an elaborate network of chapmen or itinerant sellers, these publications may truly be regarded as “popular” literature. Chapbooks were usually printed with crude woodblock illustrations and commonly measured 9¾ x 3½ inches. Most of the chapbooks I worked with were eight pages in length. Because of incomplete publication information, chapbooks are not very easily dated. Illustrations used in the chapbooks may have been made up to a hundred years before the time of printing and reused in subsequent editions, whether or not they had any relation to the text. Dating the chapbooks I catalogued required extensive research in online and printed sources.

Britain’s greatest collection of ephemera?

The collection that I worked on at the Bodleian was formed by John de Monins Johnson, a scholar who began his professional life as a papyrologist leading digs in Egypt. When World War I prevented Johnson from continuing his work in Egypt and his poor health kept him from joining the army, he went to work at the Oxford University Press. In 1925, he became printer to the university and remained in this position until his retirement in 1946. Johnson began his collecting in the late 1920s and continued until his death in 1956. He wrote that he decided on the outlines for his collection during his time in Egypt, sifting through ancient trash heaps left there by the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. The work he and his colleagues devoted to interpreting the rubbish from earlier cultures made him realize that most of the ephemera of Britain would similarly be lost if not collected.

The Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera is extremely important because of its size—it includes over a million items—range, and depth. Johnson developed a flexible system of more than 680 subject categories. This system allowed him to incorporate other large collections of ephemera into his own. These included the Heron-Allen collection of watchpapers, the E. Maude Hayter collection of valentines and Christmas cards, the M.L. Horn collection of cigarette cards, the Sir John Evans collection of bank notes and paper money, and the F.A. Bellamy collection of postage stamps and postal history.

From the start, Johnson envisioned his collection as a public resource for the University of Oxford. Johnson was able to acquire much of the ephemera through donations. He also received some support through the University of Oxford. He had special color boxes for individual categories of ephemera created at the Oxford University Press. He could also draw on press supplies to mount, bind, and otherwise house materials from the collection.

According to Johnson’s letters, he and his assistant devoted more than 3,000 hours annually to sorting and organizing the collection. This was in addition to Johnson’s long days working at the Oxford University Press. Julie-Anne Lambert, the librarian to the Johnson Collection, told me how Johnson’s collecting spilled over into his private life. There were occasions when Mrs. Johnson, after a day out, wanted to take a bath, but would be surprised to find ephemera soaking in the tub (to remove the labels from tins).

The Johnson Collection remained at the Oxford University Press until 1968, when it was transferred to the Bodleian Library. This transfer was notable, in that by accepting the collection and devoting resources to curating it, the Bodleian, one of Britain’s oldest and most significant libraries, indicated that ephemera were important to a research library. A collection that might have been considered mostly rubbish in the past—and by some even today—is now valued by the Bodleian along with medieval manuscripts and the great books, such as the Gutenberg Bible and the First Folio of Shakespeare.

The Johnson Collection has figured in numerous exhibits since arriving at the Bodleian. Today interest in ephemera is bubbling in the United Kingdom and America. The British Library has recently followed the Bodleian’s lead in promoting ephemera, creating a digital collection of magic and theatre ephemera, publishing books on the topic, and hosting lectures. During my sabbatical, the British Bibliographic Society convened a meeting that included academics and librarians from major British collections to discuss a possible union catalogue of chapbooks. The vision that was articulated was to seek major funding for institutions, such as the Bodleian, the British Library, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Cambridge University libraries, to catalog and digitize their chapbooks. In the United States, the Rare Books and Manuscripts section of the American Library Association will be holding a preconference on ephemera.

One of the most exciting aspects of working with the Johnson chapbooks was that the great majority—85 percent—were not already entered in the Bodleian’s collections. This is noteworthy, given the age and quality of the Bodleian’s holdings. In 1602, Sir Thomas Bodley refounded and personally paid to refurbish and extend the library for his alma mater, the University of Oxford. Soon after, he solicited major gifts from his friends at court and negotiated an arrangement with the London Stationer’s Guild that stipulated that the guild would send one copy of every registered book to the Bodleian. The agreement, which continues today—the Bodleian is a copyright library so that every book printed in the UK is deposited there—and a tradition of major gifts over the centuries have created a breathtaking collection of English books.

The Bodleian is a “destination” library that researchers and the curious flock to visit. While I worked in the Rare Books office—room 206—the great books of the Bodleian would often come through our space before being taken into the rare book reading rooms. It was fun to think that on the other side of the table was Shakespeare’s First Folio, but in my hand was a chapbook, The Terrible Gunpowder Explosion (1874), which, depending on how one thinks of rarity, is more rare than the First Folio. Whereas the First Folio survives complete in some 40 copies and incomplete in another 250 odd copies—a very nice complete copy of the First Folio recently sold at auction for 2.8 million pounds—there is only one recorded surviving copy of The Terrible Gunpowder Explosion.

The chapbooks that I worked on during my sabbatical are just a tiny portion—three pink boxes—of the massive Johnson Collection and represent just one among Johnson’s 680-odd subject categories. The collection is a rich source for researchers interested in children’s literature, courtesy books for juveniles, romances and adventure stories, fairy tales, Christian morality, and current events. The bulk of the collection dates from the first quarter of the 19th century, though there are 24 pre-1801 titles. The chapbooks are also noteworthy in that they are all unbound, with many still in their original printed wrappers (covers). Often collectors would have the small chapbooks bound together, so that 20 or more chapbooks would be included in a single volume. However, in the process of binding multiple chapbooks together, the practice was to remove the original printed wrappers. Beyond their aesthetic merits, the wrappers often contain information, such as sale prices and publisher’s advertisements, often not found in the book itself. Given the low survival rate of chapbooks to begin with, that a small percentage of them are in their original state, including the wrappers, makes the Johnson chapbook collection even more interesting.

Ephemera at the WSU Libraries

In the Department of Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections at the Washington State University Libraries, we have collected ephemera in a variety of formats for more than 50 years. Generally, archivists and librarians have organized collections of ephemera either at the item or collection level. My work at the Bodleian was done at the item level: each chapbook was cataloged individually. A similar method is used for MASC’s collection of the Washington Territorial Imprints. We collect anything printed (or written) in the area of Washington State before statehood in 1889. The collection includes not only books, but also broadsides, tourist pamphlets, even a menu or two. You can browse the collection by going on the Web to the library catalog GRIFFIN, selecting an author search, and typing “Washington Territorial Imprints.”

There are many large collections of ephemera in MASC that are described at the collection level—that is, a group of materials is listed in a document called a “collection guide” (or “finding aid” or “index”), rather than each item being cataloged in GRIFFIN. Examples include the WSU Publications Collection (anything printed at WSU), the Elizabeth Christensen Gardening Collection, and the Robert Cushman Butler Collection of Theatrical Illustrations. Guides for these collections and more than 700 other collections are available on the MASC Website.

My work on chapbooks and ephemera is not done. While in Oxford, I purchased several chapbooks for the WSU Libraries’ collection, as well as several for myself. I have already added discussions of ephemeral printing to the classes I teach in the library and have started several articles on the topic.

Trevor Bond is a librarian in Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections at Washington State University.