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Caring for Ephemera
by Bob Brooke

Before looking into ways of caring for ephemera, it’s important to understand just what the term includes. Ephemera is anything printed on paper—magazines, postcards, stock certificates, old deeds, etc. And while some people may include art prints in this category of collectibles, they’re best kept separate. (Link to Caring for Prints).

Organizing an ephemera collection can be done in several ways. If your collection consists of a variety of formats, you might choose to organize by form. For instance, all postcards would be filed together and all posters, illustrated billheads, chromolithographs, etc. would, likewise, be kept together. On the other hand, you might want to organize your collection by what the items illustrate. For example, a collection of paper ephemera that has been assembled to show different kinds of fish would be organized by the sort of fish shown, regardless of what the depictions were on. Finally, you might want to organize your collection chronologically.

Large collections like those in museums or libraries are often organized by format. Because they serve a wide variety of researchers, it’s difficult for them to anticipate what topic each user will want to study. In addition, museums and libraries generally have the space that’s needed to house different formats separately. Consequently, databases or indexes help researchers to find what they need.

The categories or fields you choose when creating a database are only limited by your imagination. One for trade cards, for example, might contain the name of the firm that advertised on the card and its address, the date of the trade card, the card's printer and his address, the name of an agent for the product if there was one, subjects describing goods advertised, and so forth. Allowing for a free text field gives you an opportunity to describe the trade card further, adding particulars that predefined categories don’t allow. You might also include a thumbnail image of each item with its associated listing.

To store your collection, you should use acid free folders and boxes and high quality plastic enclosures. In addition, particular attention needs to be paid to the temperature and humidity in which a collection of paper ephemera is stored. Considering that personal paper ephemera collections are mostly kept where people live, a stable temperature of 68-70 degrees with relative humidity at 40-50 percent is recommended. In addition, items should be away from direct light, both sunlight and manmade illumination, to prevent them from discoloring or becoming brittle.

You might consider displaying items from your collection in your home or office. These should be matted and framed with protective backing.

You collect these items because we want to look at, study, and enjoy what you have. In order to ensure that your collections will last, it’s important to follow a few simple rules in handling. First and foremost, clean and dry hands are very important. To avoid staining and attracting insects, food and drink should not be consumed near collections; pencils, not ink pens, are for note taking; and "sticky notes" should be avoided because they leave harmful residue. Finally, never trace or write on top of your paper ephemera.

For long-term care of ephemera, consider three main things—conservation, environment, and storage.

Conservation are those efforts you take to preserve a document or restore a damaged one. Conservation includes repairs to documents, de-acification of paper and efforts to ensure the long time survival of ephemera. You should not undertake conservation of items in your collection yourself, but instead use the services of a qualified paper conservator.

Follow these recommendations from the Library of Congress for establishing the right environment for ephemera:

  • Store paper materials in dark, cool, relatively dry locations. Aim for 35% relative humidity and below 72° F.
  • Avoid light, heat and dampness.
  • Attics, bathrooms and basements are to be avoided.
  • Inside walls are drier than outside walls, where moisture can collect.
  • High humidity can lead to the development of foxing (small brown disfiguring spots in paper) or mold growth.
  • Use UV protection for displayed items that are subject to exposure to direct sunlight, fluorescent bulbs or long term lighting.
  • Paper materials should be protected from dust and dirt.

As for storage, it’s best to store paper items flat, rather than folding and unfolding. Paper materials may be stored in acid-free alkaline folders, polyester film folders or alkaline mats. Ecapsulation in Polyester Film is the most highly recommended storage environment.

For mounting, use foam core backing that has a 100 percent archival cotton rag surface.

According to the US Library of Congress, the most preferred material for preserving valuable documents is uncoated archival quality polyester film, such as Mylar® type D. or equivalent material Melinex® 516. Polyester film is a clear, inert plastic that provides excellent support for fragile paper.

Mylar® is an exceptionally strong transparent film that is resistant to moisture, pollutants, oils, and acids. It contains no volatile chemicals which will migrate to the surface of the paper and cause damage. With a life expectancy of hundreds of years, Mylar® will outlast most other plastics. In addition, along with the brilliance and clarity of Mylar® which enhances the appearance of any paper collectible, it is an effective barrier against acidity which is the primary cause of paper deterioration.

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