top of page

What is Ephemera?

Ephemera is printed material that was not meant to be retained or preserved. The word derives from the Greek word ephemeros, meaning “lasting only a day.” Originally, the term was used for insects with a short lifespan.  

For librarians, the term describes single page documents that are meant to be thrown away after one use such as broadsides or posters. These collections can also include pamphlets, postcards, flyers, calling cards, or any other form of advertisement that was not intended to be kept for a long period of time.  

Other paper ephemera can include items that were meant to be saved but were still short-lived in nature such as birth certificates, passports, wills, and deeds. The term has also begun to include letters and photographs.

Ephemera can also include audio or visual materials, such as a taping of a newscast that was not meant to be kept for a long period of time using standardized preservation methods.


Physical items that were not meant to be retained also can be considered ephemera. Buttons, lunchboxes, tins, textile swatches, balloons, and other memorabilia items are all things meant to eventually be tossed in the trash.

So why does ephemera matter?

Since the nature of ephemera is items that are meant to be tossed or short-lived, it makes them rather unique when found, preserved, and studied. These items many times reveal stories or information about a culture that we may not have known otherwise. Ephemera makes historical information not only culturally relevant, but possibly gives information that can be found nowhere else. Not everything is documented and when we try to learn about what has happened in the past, ephemera sometimes gives us the answers.  

An example, my husband and his sister have boxes of wrestling tapes they would record off the television. Not all these matches have been preserved by larger companies. Some of the matches have been preserved, but due to music copyrights, the published versions have different entrance music or montage music. These tapes reveal elements of a period that may be lost. Who were the stars at the time, what gimmicks did the audiences like and what did that say about our culture at the time, what music was popular that may not have been on the music charts?

Ephemera reminds us of humanity

When viewing ephemera, we also connect emotion and feeling to the images/text and project our own memories onto it. When seeing a postcard from 1850 of a modern-day vacation spot, you are flooded with memories of the times you visited that vacation spot. If you take these feelings and thoughts a step further, we connect with lives of the past and realize that these individuals were not much different than us. We all took delight in a similar place. The clothes, the buildings may have been different, but we essentially are enjoying the same thing humans 150 years ago enjoyed.

The same goes for memories that may not be as cheery. Looking at flyers for the abolitionist movement in the 1830s we feel the struggle and desire for all humans to have access to freedom and rights. It is not much different than today as we see posters for the Black Lives Matter movement. We must question, why is it that we still do not grant these freedoms and what can we do better? What images and strategies were being used to present these struggles?

Recognizing the similarities of mankind through ephemera and material culture can give us compassion for others and think of social structures in a different way.


bottom of page