The John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera

In the third and final year of my history degree, I read E. P. Thompson’s magnum opus, The Making of the English Working Class. Thompson wanted to recover the stories of hundreds of thousands of men and women from the ‘tremendous condescension of posterity’ and employed some truly groundbreaking methodology to accomplish that task. What struck me about the entire project, however, were the enormous blanks that even an accomplished researcher like Thompson was forced to draw when he began to examine the minutiae of how these people lived. The huge political and religious events of the period are literally buried under the weight of writings but yet we know comparatively little about the day-to-day existence of the so-called ‘ordinary’ people. How much, for instance, would a loaf of bread have cost in London in 1780? Or in Oxford? Or any small market town far from the cry of the maddening crowd? Could the average artisan afford books and, if so, what sort of books did they read? From these seemingly small questions, great historical problems can be approached: if we know the price of bread and the average wage, we know something about the prosperity of a community, a city, or even a country. If cheap books were produced in large numbers, then something can be said about literacy rates amongst the English poor.

The aim of the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera is to fill in the little gaps so we can answer the big questions. This they intend to do through a thoroughly catalogued collection of ephemera. But what are ephemera? Printed ephemera (as the Latin root of the word suggests) are those pieces of paper that are intended to be used only once or twice and then be disposed of: labels, adverts, calling cards, play programmes, book plates, mass produced letters and pamphlets, paper toys, even newspapers. The information, both direct and inferred, on these daily pieces of detritus seemed so commonplace to contemporaries as not to be worthy of preservation or even comment: but it is precisely for this reason that these scraps are immeasurably valuable today. They tell us what no other source bothers to.

The founder of the collection, John de Monins Johnson, realised the value of ephemera whilst he was studying ancient Egypt. The few written sources remaining from the many millennia of the pharaohs are shreds of papyrus: such tiny fragments tell us a vast amount about Egyptian history, religion, society and culture. But, as Johnson soon grasped, no one was collecting those modern bits of paper, bits of paper that could be just as important for future generations as papyrus is to us.  Thus the collection was born.

Currently consisting of over a million articles dating from 1509 to the present day, the collection continues to grow and develop. The range of material is correspondingly vast: from incredibly ornate coffee adverts to grisly broadsheets gossiping about the latest celebrity execution, from World War One postcards to concert programmes printed in honour of visiting tsars and shahs.  Virtually all of the project has been digitised and can be accessed via the internet. Oxford University staff and students (even undergraduates) can arrange with the librarians in charge of the collection to see and utilise the material for their research.

Finally, what is it that graduate trainees do at the JJC? Unfortunately (if only from our point of view), much of the work relating to the project is now nearing its conclusion. However, loose ends always need tidying up. The last of the collections need to be organised and given permanent class marks. Some of the catalogue entries need to be edited and expanded (a task more difficult than it sounds, given that the JJC uses a cataloguing system wholly different to that used elsewhere in OULS). Deliveries from the digitisation project need to be ‘tracked’ back into the system and those that need scanning (with due reference to the restrictions of copyright law) ‘tracked’ out. Any new additions (such as material collected from the Freshers’ Fair for the section on student societies) have to be organised, classmarked and boxed, ready for the researchers of tomorrow. All in all, the JJC offers its graduate trainees the chance to handle highly unconventional material and to sample the unique challenges a librarian faces when trying to deal with ephemera.

For more information, handy links, and the online catalogue, see:

James White, Bodleian Library

JamesHello all, I am James and I am completing my graduate traineeship at the Bodleian Library. Unlike many of the college and faculty libraries, the Bodleian gives the trainee the opportunity to experience many different departments, both on the frontline and behind the scenes. Currently I am working in the Rare Books room and helping out with the John Johnson Project. I also edit the OULS newsletter Outline.

I graduated from the University of Birmingham in 2008 having read Medieval and Modern History. In the academic year 2008/09, I completed an MA in Russian and East European Studies, focussing principally on 19th century Russian history. I worked for three years in the Main Library of my university: it was during this period when I became interested in working in academic libraries and began to consider the profession of librarian as a potential career path. I currently intend to go to library school once this programme has concluded.