Ephemeral Arteries: Connecting with our past through ‘disposable’ artefacts

As time passes and we move further away from specific moments and events, nuance is lost. An historical narrative is written and in it incidents may be omitted and periods of time compressed so that a story can be neatly told. This is the nature of history-telling for the most part – condensing the story so it can be related and understood in a straightforward and largely linear way. When a student or researcher comes to explore a specific part of the historical narrative in the opposite direction – i.e. to take a subject and expand on it rather than condense it – ephemera can play a central role in helping them to understand the context in which events took place.

Ephemeral items are things which were originally intended (or expected) to only be used for a short period of time. Election literature is a good example of ephemera – it serves a useful purpose for a brief period in the run-up to an election and is considered largely redundant once the election has taken place. Mailshots, event programmes, handbills passed out on the street, even bumper stickers – all are ephemera of one type or another. As the true value of ephemera is often only proven over time, repositories like UCD Special Collections now actively collect it in order to preserve it into the future. 

In line with this, Special Collections recently acquired four discrete collections of ephemeral items which it is hoped will prove valuable to researchers both now and into the future. Over 700 items of ephemera are included in the acquisition and the material falls under four main themes each of which now accounts for a small collection within the wider Special Collections holdings. The four themes covered are the Repeal the 8th movement in Ireland, the Women’s Liberation movement in Britain, Race and Racism in the UK, and Street Literature in Ireland.

The Repeal the 8th Collection contains material representing the arguments presented both for and against the removal of the 8th amendment of the Irish constitution by referendum in 2018. Organisations that existed only briefly – and solely for the purpose of advancing their agenda in the context of that referendum – are represented here. Alongside the leaflets and flyers that are generated around any national poll, pin badges, stickers, prayer cards, newspaper advertisements and postcards all combine to showcase the arguments and depth of feeling that existed around the issue. As such, the collection holds huge value for anyone who wishes to contextualise the referendum and its eventual outcome.

The Women’s Liberation Collection covers a much longer time span – in excess of 50 years – and thus offers an overview of a movement as it evolved and grew in strength and influence. The material in the collection ranges from handbills advocating for creche facilities so that mothers could go to work, to petitions pushing for the removal of government bills deemed unfair or discriminatory to women. The evolution of the movement from a grassroots campaign to an established, widely supported cause can be clearly traced as the quality of the publications advances from handmade to professionally printed, and as the organisations behind them solidify and consolidate from disparate to unified groups. The collection documents how women came together from across the UK to advocate for equality in pay and working conditions as well as for stronger representation for women and legislation to protect them. Whether it’s a handmade flyer for a fund-raising carnival, a leaflet outlining how a newly passed act might affect a woman’s earnings, or a pin badge advocating union membership for working women, the evolution of Women’s Liberation from a local to a national movement in the UK is evidenced through the ephemera in this collection.

Like the Women’s Liberation Collection, the Race and Racism Collection contains material covering a considerable timeframe – from the early 1950’s to the early 2000’s – but with a predominant focus on the 1970’s and 1980’s. The subject of immigration to the UK is well covered and numerous publications offer contemporary takes from immigrants on what life in the UK was like for them at the time. The experiences of refugees and ethnic minorities can be tracked through these publications, as can the ever present issues of employment inequality and police inaction / brutality. While the vast majority of publications in this collection concern issues of oppression and inequality, they also stand as evidence of the unending fight against those problems. The flyers, leaflets and pamphlets within the collection are almost universally constructive in their approach to the issues concerned; a problem is outlined and then a solution is proposed. Preserved ephemera allows us to pinpoint who was advocating for change and when. It also enables us to see how long that change took to implement. While the issues at hand may vary, that understanding is always vital.

The Street Literature Collection is by far the most diffuse of the four new ephemera collections. Coverage ranges from Occupy Dame Street handbills to flyers with titles like How Rounding Works and Vegan Chocolate Recipes. Literature relating to the Shell to Sea campaign in Rossport sits alongside leaflets advocating non-payment of Irish Water bills. Political manifestoes, union newspapers and BYOB fundraisers all get a look in here as the type of material one might have been handed on the street in the first two decades of the 21st century is presented in all its mis-matched glory. Anti-war movements that have come and gone are represented. Short-lived groups that might otherwise be forgotten such as Liberties Against the Bin Tax, Anti-McDonald’s Campaign, and Stop Trump Ireland have instead been recorded for posterity. With ephemera from such a recent period of our social history it can be difficult to determine which, if any, of these items will prove valuable to future researchers. However, by collecting it rather than discarding it, the opportunity for future discovery and understanding is preserved alongside the artefacts themselves.

It’s likely that the individuals and groups who produced many of the items in these newly acquired collections never considered that their publications might one day be catalogued and added to the holdings of a Special Collections repository. Indeed they might be bemused or even bewildered to find that they have been now. But that is the joy of ephemera – it has a capacity to surprise us simply by surviving against the odds. And it serves to remind us of details of our past that could so easily be lost in the shuffle of time.

  • This post was researched and written by Daniel Conneally, UCD Special Collections.

2 thoughts on “Ephemeral Arteries: Connecting with our past through ‘disposable’ artefacts

  1. Emma Cownie says:

    These are fascinationg – its precisely the stuff that people throw away we need to collect and preserve. How are C21st historians preserving the ephemera of today? The tweets, the memes. Paper leaflets and posters are much rarer these days.

    • ucdculturalheritagecollections says:

      Hi Emma,

      That is a good question and one that archivists, special collection librarians and historians are still grappling with. The field of the digital archivist is a very important one as they are trying to figure out ways to collect, preserve and make available this digital material. It is definitely an area to watch!


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