Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Digital ephemera

This post started as a few lines tacked onto a post several months ago about the the William and Barbara Holman Book Arts Collection and associated bookplate. This bookplate I have is not the physical object created by the Holmans. It is a digital copy Mr. Holman emailed to me. That got me to thinking about collecting "digital ephemera."

Is there such a thing and is it viable as a collectible? Libraries around the world are creating digital archives of not only books, but historical documents and ephemera as well. As ephemera (that which is transitory and short-lived) has come to be synonymous with collectible paper, can a digital representation, a copy of the original, even be squeezed into the definition? Or will the definition expand enough with time to include digital copies?

It's already happening. Mostly, I find a "digital collection of ephemera," when browsing university libraries online. That seems about as accurate a description as any. A few prefer to shorten it to "digital ephemera." Language is always evolving. Inherent in that is the ability of definitions to evolve beyond their original scope.

Beyond university and historical institutions, businesses and individual computer users originate and deal in digital ephemera (digiphemera?) everyday from correspondence to sales transactions to images. Businesses create spreadsheets and product documentation Individuals create online transactions in the e-commerce realm. And so on. These records are saved and backed-up and archived. Massive amounts of information have been saved, but how much of it, aside from preservable, is really collectible? They are preserved for business purposes, but may one day be valued for historical research and collecting pleasures.

I collect historical business records and correspondence in the form (paper) of billheads, postal covers, promotional pieces--you name it--from booksellers, publishers, printers, bookbinders, and others connected with the book trades. Most are old, dating back a century or more. These business records were saved by individuals and businesses for various reasons and somehow survived the decades and centuries from weather, insects, and neglect in warehouses, cellars, and attics. But I think it is safe to say that most of these items were not viewed as collectible in the sense that they are collected today. Now they are.

One hundred years from now, that old paper will still be viable as a collectible, but I believe it will co-exist with its digital or other technological non-paper counterpart, such as the bookplate from the Holmans or this broadside received in digital format from Mr. Holman. I have saved these explicitly as collectibles.

The two Holman items I just mentioned are not the original paper items, but I'm certainly not discounting their collectibility. They have value to me. I didn't just select an image from a Web page and do a 'save as' onto my hard drive. I received them in an email from Mr. Holman. And, yes, I saved the email as a collectible, too.

Several things come to mind immediately about the differences between paper and digital, other than the obvious.

One is how easy a digital item can be copied and shared. That would appear to seriously dilute monetary value for such collectibles. Paper items are unique. If an old publisher's letter is destroyed, it is lost forever in its original format. Hopefully, there was a digital backup and an image of the original can be reproduced. But it certainly won't be like the original and it's collectibility will be greatly changed. If that digital copy is available for public viewing, it will be digitally copied by others.

But a digital copy of a digital record--how do you distinguish between an original and a duplicate? The digital copy of the bookplate Mr. Holman sent me is indistinguishable from a copy he may have sent to others. It's still collectible to me, but it may not be unique. However, the associated email enhances the collectibility significantly.

Another thing to think about is how changing technology, with respect to media storage and retrieval, will affect the ability to view digital ephemera collected today via various software and hardware devices.

For example, if someone were to find in a junk shop ten or twenty years from now a disk whose label claimed it contained an operational flowchart I created a few decades ago for the developing Crew Health Care System aboard the conceptual Space Station, would it even be readable? My memory is a bit fuzzy, but I believe I created such a document with Claris MacDraw on a Mac IIsi.

Space collectors might value it in the same way I would value a piece of correspondence from an eighteenth-century Boston printer. But how easy, or how difficult I should ask, would it be to view the contents created with the antiquated software? Would it be virtually impossible? If so, that would negate any collectibility status. It would be like me coming across an illegible, water-damaged letter that was labeled "1800s Philadelphia bookseller," but unreadable beyond that.

Back to my initial questions about the existence and collectibility of digital ephemera, I'd have to answer in the affirmative. Yes to both. Without realizing it, or thinking too much about it, digital ephemera has already worked its way into my collection, some of which has been posted here. There may be more than mentioned above, but I'll have to dig through the archives to find them. The digital archives, that is. I won't have to crack open the three-ring binders and thumb through the clear polypropylene PVC-free archival sleeves protecting their paper ephemera treasures.

But twenty years from now, I could view them preserved in that way. I have no idea how I will view the Holman bookplate in digital format. But taking an ironic twist of a cue from the digital age, I have made my paper backups.


  1. I was about to say something to the effect of "Speaking for Tactilians," but then I remembered how woeful am I when I find a favorite internet link is now broken. If only I had copied the content into a document file or printed it out. By the way, I like to look at publishers announcements in old books and see what else was being published concurrently with the book in hand. As I read your post, my eyes occasionally stray to the sneak peeks at other ephemera related blogs listed to the right. In the future, when I come back to read this post again, the content in that blogroll will have changed. Will that qualify as some kind of anachronism?

  2. No anachronism that I can see, just the nature of all things--nothing stays the same, including blogrolls. Great minds think alike, though. I, too, will look at publishers' announcements in old books (anachronistic?) and I have copied content from Web sites out of fear that the links would go truly ephemeral on me and be DOA next time I tried to use them.

  3. Interesting things to think about. Your comment about changing technology brought to mind a trend that we're beginning to see in our service bureau - a "back to the future" if you will: the archive-writing of digital files to microfilm. It's taking on added importance for the very reasons you raised in your blog. The "space collector" may not have the software to read that disk, but there's an excellent chance he (or she)will be able to read microfilm, which has a life expectancy, if stored properly, of approximately 500 years - still the longest-lasting archival material available.

  4. Good old microfilm! I've spent many hours over many years researching genealogy data on microfilm. Nice to know it's got a long shelf life! Very interesting about trending back to an older archival technology, but it makes sense... as long as microfilm readers are still available for centuries to come. Thanks for your informative comments!

  5. Virtually all digital objects are ephemeral. Between the passing of the software and hardware necessary to view such objects, and the possible passing of a strong magnet past the storage medium that will erase the bits and bytes, it's amazing that any digital objects are thought of as permanent. If someone wants to be reliably able to read or view a digital object in the future, it simply has to be printed out now.

  6. A discussion of what is and what isn't ephemeral can slam hard into semantics pretty quick. Depends on what the meaning of the word "is" is... Depends on what the word ephemeral means. “That which is intended or meant to last only a short time” would omit digital archiving of anything because the digital versions truly are created and intended to last more than a short time. “Digital ephemera” applied to that scenario sounds like an oxymoron. Digital copies of something created for transport to another device for modification or printing could be termed ephemeral because the intent for it was transitory and short-lived. Same with a lot of emails and documents created with a short life in mind. But once created for the archives, a digital item’s ability to last more than a short time, because of software/hardware compatibility issues, is another matter for discussion (and requires a definition of “short time”). The debate rages on… Appreciate the thoughtful comments on the subject!



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