Art ephemera / e-ephemera

The next issue of the Art Libraries Journal (vol.38, no.1, p.27-31) will include a timely article by Holly Callaghan focusing on an aspect of digital curation that has been discussed in this column before: “Electronic ephemera: collection, storage and access in Tate Library”. Based on the report of a research secondment that took place in late 2011 and early 2012, it offers a detailed analysis of the challenges involved in developing and managing a digital collection of email announcements sent by galleries, artists and others to publicise their activities, including technical, legal and other significant issues.


Traditional art ephemera (or artist files, art files, vertical files, information files…) consist of small scale printed material related to artists and their work, made for specific, limited uses (usually intended to be discarded) and freely or inexpensively distributed. A wide range of formats and types of document can be considered as such: invitation cards, press releases, artists’ statements, CVs, listings, programmes, guides, maps and plans, flyers, stickers, leaflets, posters, etc. Ephemera collections may sometimes also include newspaper and magazine clippings, small catalogues and other less ephemeral publications. In addition to artists and other individuals (curators, collectors, etc.), they can also relate to artworks, events (exhibitions, prizes, fairs, etc.) and institutions (galleries, foundations, public agencies, etc.) Collected as primary sources of information (images and historical data), in many cases the sole existing ones for new or lesser known individuals or institutions, they have become in recent years valued as artefacts (particularly artists’ ephemera), often used in exhibitions for their material qualities. Traditionally received by post, sometimes collected locally by staff and others, production and distribution have been declining for some time, replaced by online digital alternatives. Often relatively difficult to access, normally arranged in personal or institutional files, but not catalogued at individual item level (for practical reasons), art ephemera have relied on collection level descriptions, finding aids, listings, spreadsheets, etc. (now online, see for instance the Guggenheim Archives Artist Files listings, or those of the University of Louisville Art Library, created using LibGuides), and, at best, file level catalogue records, created by using generic templates.


Guggenheim Archives: Artist Files Finding Aid

University of Louisville Libraries: Artist Files


Steven Leiber, an important dealer and scholar in this area who died earlier this year, curated the seminal show “Extra art: a survey of artists’ ephemera, 1960-1999” in 2001 (ICA in 2002), while the influential report Ephemera; the stuff of history was published by CILIP in 2003. Much has been written about this topic in the 10 years since: The ARLIS NA Artist Files Special Interest Group and its project Artist Files Revealed are good starting places, offering information and practical advice. However, there is still a need of guidance and leadership in the way art libraries respond to the challenge of managing their legacy collections of print ephemera (with a number of institutions having discontinued their development) and, more acutely, digitisation and managing digital born material.


ARLIS NA Artist Files Special Interest Group

Artist Files Revealed

CILIP (2003) Ephemera: the stuff of history


Digitisation has been seen for some time as the ideal way forward in providing access to these collections, not least with the prospect of OCR allowing full text search and thus partially compensating for the lack of individual item catalogue records. The twin obstacles of lack of resources and copyright have combined to date to make this a dream in most cases, but recent projects like that carried at the Guggenheim Archives (2009-2011, ca. 150 files), based around in-house digitisation and enlightened fair use and “take down” policies, give some hope for the future. The Decapod Project, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and currently in development, is an interesting low cost digitisation tool that could be of interest in this context.


Guggenheim Archives: Artist Files

Decapod Project


Dealing with the ever growing amount of digital born material has probably been one of the most pressing issues for the sector over the past 15 years. The concept of digital art ephemera (or art e-ephemera) is a debatable one, and there is no current definition, let alone consensus over its usefulness as such. Some paper documents (invitations, press releases, CVs) have direct electronic equivalents; others do not (stickers, posters), and there are also entirely new kinds of digital documents. The range of digital material that could be of potential interest for art researchers and practitioners include: emails, online discussion lists, websites, online adverts, digital artworks, database records, and all kinds of other computer files and software, and possibly even files and software for other electronic devices. Because of this enormous range, the very fast pace of technological change, the sheer size of potentially relevant material, different copyright provisions, etc., the challenge of collecting, providing access and preserving them is enormous. There is no doubt that we are in a transitional period, but this can not be an excuse for inaction, to wait and see, as a potential digital black hole of primary sources starting ca.1990 could be its final consequence. The development of best practices for collecting born digital content relating to art and artists, including a definition of the notion of e-ephemera (if still valid and relevant), would be a significant step in the right direction, and encourage libraries to consider projects in this area (see, for instance, the results of the Artist Files and Digital Records Survey 2010 and those of the survey carried out by Tate staff discussed in the article mentioned above).


Artist Files and Digital Records Survey 2010


National libraries (British Library, Library of Congress, etc.) have been active collecting websites for some time, working under the umbrella of the International Internet Preservation Consortium. There is a strong need, however, for wider institutional involvement, from smaller research and specialist libraries and archives, public libraries, etc., to bring both diversity and expertise to the effort, particularly through collaborative projects. In recent times, there has been considerable interest in the US in the online service Archive-It, which currently has more than 200 organisations as subscribers. Archive-It takes snapshots (all cascading pages and links, including images and other media) of websites selected by specialists (who also create metadata for them), arranged into collections (ca. 2,000). The “Contemporary women artists on the web” is one such collection, maintained by the Library of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and an excellent example of the possibilities of this tool. NYARC published last year a report by Sean Leahy on a pilot project on using Archive-It to harvest online auction catalogues, and it has now embarked in a major research project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: Reframing Collections for a Digital Age: A Preparatory Study for Collecting and Preserving Web-Based Art Research Materials. An alternative service is provided by the California Digital Library Web Archiving Service, currently hosting some 50 collections, including several managed by external organisations (ca. 10). The OCLC Research Project Demystifying Born Digital is currently producing a series of brief reports aimed at improving the management of these resources in the context of special collections and archives. You’ve Got to Walk Before You Can Run: First Steps for Managing Born-Digital Content Received on Physical Media, and Swatting the Long Tail of Digital Media: A Call for Collaboration, both by Ricky Erway, are its first two outcomes.


British Library: UK Web Archive

Library of Congress: Web archiving

International Internet Preservation Consortium

IIPC Member Archives


Contemporary women artists on the web

Archive-It and Online Auction Catalogs

NYARC: Reframing Collections for a Digital Age

California Digital Library (U.of California): Web Archiving Service

OCLC Research Project Demystifying Born Digital


[Grandal Montero, G. (2012) Resources online: Art ephemera / e-ephemera. ARLIS News-sheet, no. 220, Nov.-Dec., pp. 3-4.]


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