Going to School at e-Bay?
The Internet has grown greatly over time, sites
increasing in number exponentially over the years. Those familiar
with the Internet know that various URL extensions--.gov, .edu,
.org, and .com--identify kinds of sites: governmental, educational,
non-profits, and commercial. And, each kind of site offers information
distinctive to the groups they represent.
interested in studying ephemera might access a government site
such as the Library of Congress to catch up on exhibitions, an
education site to check an online catalog or index, an organization
site such as the Ephemera Society's to find out about an upcoming
meeting, and a commercial site to purchase something for themselves.
Increasingly, however, ephemerists interested in
doing research on their collections or expanding their knowledge
in other areas have been drawn to dot-coms for information. Intended
for business purposes, most are well designed, adopting the latest
technology to capture an audience and promote return visits. But,
as Deirdre Donohue, the library director of the International
Center of Photography, pointed out in a recent article in Art
Libraries Journal, "Consumer databases provide richer 'objective'
stores of information about the content of magazines, books and
ephemera than do library catalogues."
A recent search on e-Bay under the general topic
of ephemera yielded 127 responses. Retrieved were an old medical
book from 1909; a pack of 100+ items--sometimes referred to as
a dealer's lot--including postcards, stamps, cigar labels, sheet
music, and advertisements; a lot of Thomas Cook & Son ephemera
from 1905; and a postcard showing the Van Briggle pottery works
in Colorado Springs, Colorado. However, scant information beyond
an image or two in addition to ordering information was included
in describing the material.
More specific search terms lessened the number of e-Bay's responses,
and perhaps not surprisingly, there was more information about
each item being offered for sale. A search for nineteenth century
printer-chromolithographer Charles Magnus revealed just one item,
a patriotic envelope showing Miss Liberty. Magnus, a patriot and
known for producing such things, issued Miss Liberty in 1861 and
featured the words "Dedicated to the Gallant Defenders of
our National Union" under her portrait.
Palmer Cox created the marvelous Brownies in the late 1800s. A
search under his name brought twenty-seven items to the screen,
including not only ephemera but also salt shakers, a camera, napkin
ring, refrigerator magnet, and watch stand, demonstrating the
influence the Brownies had on the production of three-dimensional
objects. One piece of paper ephemera in particular, "The
Brownies through the Year," contained especially good information:
"Although most collectors are aware of the wonderful Cox
Brownies which appeared in St. Nicholas Magazine for many years,
much more difficult to find are the large pages he did for Ladies'
Home Journal in the early 1890s."
Children as well as adults can benefit from searching
dot-com sites. Suppose that a student had been assigned to find
out how images of American presidents were used over the years
to sell products in the marketplace. A search on e-Bay would tell
him that in the 1890s, Selz, Schwab & Co. of Chicago, makers
of "Rock Bottom" shoes (also, "Ask for our A.B.C.
Children's Shoes"), had circulated a series of trade cards
featuring the portraits of our presidents. In 1933, Elite Cleaners,
operated by Billie Mainord, Main and Shannon Streets, Jackson,
Tennessee, produced a fan entitled "Presidents of the United
States from Washington to Hoover," asking the question "Who
will be next?" Without offerings like these on e-Bay and
other dot-com sites, we may never have known about such items.
Thankful though we may be, there is a downside in
relying on commercial Internet sites for information. Very simply,
after a while their managers post new offerings and remove all
references to what they have already sold. In a sense, ephemera
offered for sale is truly ephemeral: it lasts for a short time--in
this context electronically--before it disappears from view. Some
sites can be recaptured by such services as The Wayback Machine
which according to its greeting "puts the history of the
World Wide Web at your fingertips. The Archive contains over 100
terabytes and 10 billion web pages archived from 1996 to the present."
All users need to do is type the URL of the site they wish to
revisit, and if it is archived, they will be taken there. Unfortunately,
e-Bay has chosen to prevent retro searches.
Students especially need to be conscious of the
ephemerality of web sources since their teachers most likely require
footnotes, and with out of date or unusable URLs, they are impossible
to provide. Perhaps the only alternative is to append paper copies
of web pages to term papers, an ironic solution for tracking ephemeral
sources since by printing them out, they become more or less permanent.
E. Richard McKinstry