An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera
The Printed Ephemera Collection at the Library of Congress is a rich repository of Americana containing, among other materials, posters, playbills, songsheets, notices, invitations, proclamations, petitions, timetables, leaflets, propaganda, manifestos, ballots, tickets, menus, and business cards. There are more than 28,000 items in the collection. The material dates from the seventeenth century to the present day and covers innumerable topics.
The library of Peter Force, acquired by the Library of Congress in 1867, furnished the basis of the Printed Ephemera Collection. Force himself had secured many of the pieces assembled by an earlier American historian and collector, Ebenezer Hazard. The majority of the items in the collection were produced in America and their major strength is in historical Americana. In adding to the collection, the Library's aim was to accumulate a record of all broadsides printed in America, and to do so, photostats as well as originals were collected.
An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera delivers online access to the Printed Ephemera Collection, providing digital images and searchable electronic text.
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The Nature of Ephemera
As the name would suggest, printed ephemera tends to be transitory documents created for a specific purpose, and intended to be thrown away. The Printed Ephemera collection at the Library of Congress comprises primary sources relating to the key events of American history, including the Revolutionary War, slavery, the Western land rush, the Civil War, women's suffrage, and the Industrial Revolution. The printed material was produced as the events unfolded and offers unique snapshots of the nation's past.
Printed ephemera has had multiple purposes, as instanced by the variety of material assembled in An American Time Capsule. A primary purpose was the distribution of information. In the days before television and radio, citizens received news by way of broadsides and printed ephemera. For example, a Baltimore broadside of 1776 gives the first published account of Washington crossing the Delaware.
Other material tells a different story. Many of the items were never meant to be kept. For example, an ordinary paint advertisement may not seem of historical interest except for the date: 1792. The list of colors (more than one might expect) gives clues about the shades and hues that adorned the homes of the nation's founders. A 1928 railroad leaflet includes one of the earliest references to air travel, and shows the industry in a nascent, and interesting, state.
Printed ephemera also shows a new side of well-known issues and people. A business card which appears to have been printed by Abraham Lincoln was actually published and distributed by his opposition in the 1864 presidential election. It promised that, after losing the election, he'd return to Illinois to split rails and trade horses.
Historical events are brought to life by printed ephemera. In the wake of the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, Mayor E. E. Schmitz had no choice but to muster a special police force to keep peace amid the chaos. He empowered the officers to take extreme measures if necessary, and a broadside announced the order.
Lastly, certain items provide a connection with the past in ways that textbooks cannot. An 1840 poster for a lost dog, printed in Alton, Illinois, shows that people felt as strongly about their pets in the nineteenth century as today. It also may spark a new consciousness of one's surroundings: the xeroxed sign at the bus stop showing maps and routes might be insignificant now, but it holds a story that may help to illuminate history in generations to come.
In exploring the contents of An American Time Capsule, readers may encounter attitudes and language that are jarring to contemporary sensibilities. It should be noted that broadsides and printed ephemera express the language, experience, and viewpoints of the era in which they were published.
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The Printed Ephemera Collection: In the Library's Reading Room and Online
The majority of the Printed Ephemera Collection at the Library is arranged by state of imprint. The states are ordered alphabetically, and within each state, the items are arranged chronologically. The sequence of American material is followed by international imprints ordered by country, and special classes of material grouped under a common subject, such as the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention broadsides, Lincoln material, and playbills.
The collection is housed in archival folders and placed in flat boxes and map cases. Readers visiting the Library peruse the card file or the published catalog and make their requests at the front desk of the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room. The material is served in the archival folders and the reader opens the folders one by one.
The arrangement of materials in An American Time Capsule attempts to reproduce online the experience of examining the materials in the Reading Room. Users browse or search keywords in the electronic database, make selections, and download the images. Each item included in the online collection has been digitized in a manner that captures all data on the item. Duplicate copies have usually not been digitized, nor have surfaces of items that are blank or only contain Library of Congress information that is reproduced in the bibliographic description.
Often materials of this sort were produced in such a way that more than one page of text was printed on one side of a sheet. These sheets were then folded before distribution so the different pages of text followed each other in appropriate order. These multiple formats are described in the section Page Order and Folding Diagrams. The multiple printing formats and folding patterns represented in the An American Time Capsule are described in the section Page Order and Folding Diagrams. Original items in these various formats have been digitized page by page in the order depicted in the applicable Page Order Diagram.
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The Printed Ephemera Collection: Bibliographic Access
The majority of the Printed Ephemera Collection at the Library has brief item-level descriptions. Occasionally a group of similar items is covered by a single record. Some material has had complete cataloging and is described by MARC records that reside in the Library's online catalog; this comprises only a small percentage of the collection, however.
Because printed ephemera lacks the uniformity of books, the traditional rules of cataloging books and other monographs often do not apply. After all, broadsides don't have title pages. This may explain the simple, and at times irregular, rendering of the titles in the bibliographic descriptions. For the most part, these descriptions are not part of the Library's official catalog, but they remain an invaluable resource.
The collection is shelved in a geographical order, but the card file maintains cross-referenced access in a total of three ways: geographical, author/title, and chronological. All three were published in a four-volume set entitled Broadsides in the Rare Book Division, Library of Congress (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1972), edited by Frederick Goff.
While extremely useful, the volumes do not provide subject access. A scholar researching "women's suffrage" could either check the Author/Title volumes for well-known names and documents, or skim the thousands of cards in the chronological index during the key years. Likewise, a reader with an interest in "Arizona" may find all the items with Arizona imprints, but the Geographical index does not reveal any germane titles that had been published elsewhere.
An American Time Capsule, in addition to making printed ephemera available online, will greatly enhance users' access to the collection by offering keyword searchability, unlocking substantially increased research potential. Now, a search on "suffrage" or "Arizona" will locate occurrences anywhere in the bibliographic description, not only the first word of the author or title. The potential expands even farther with the full textual transcriptions that are included. These "full-text" searches locate occurrences anywhere in the entire document.
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The Printed Ephemera Collection: In Print and Online
Much has been written in the last few years about the pros and cons of converting paper card files into electronic formats. In some cases, users fear that valuable information is lost in the process because not all the data from the cards are migrated to the database.
This claim cannot be made of the the conversion undertaken for An American Time Capsule. All information on the cards has been transcribed in the digital records. Even the backs of the cards, which are not visible in the published finding aid, are accounted for in the bibliographical records that accompany the images in this collection.
Of course, the disadvantage of reproducing the catalog so completely is that the electronic records also preserve the eccentricities of the cards. These descriptions were produced over many decades and did not have the advantage of a standardized format. Also, some notes which undoubtedly bore relevance at the time of creation may seem cryptic today.
It is important to remember that the online records are digital facsimiles of the card file, just as the document images are digital facsimiles of the primary sources. The aim in converting the access aid this way is to provide as much of the real Reading Room experience as possible.
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