It’s interesting to think of how much of our everyday culture goes unnoticed, lost to time and simple decomposition. The newspaper someone tossed yesterday turns to mush in a landfill pile. The gilt invite you saved from your alma mater’s 15th reunion is lost in a pile of documents, kids’ art projects, and bills. The sticky note with your to-do list gets stuck to the bottom of your shoe and wears away as you walk to work one day. We often don’t take the time to think about these little pieces of paper, these tiny fragments of memory and thought that we churn out every single day, though these can very often be the most crucial clues about who we are.
The value in the Art & Artists’ Files at the American Art and Portrait Gallery Library (AAPG) lies in their attention to these everyday ephemera, the things left behind and that, when pieced together in a variety of different ways by staff members and researchers, tell a myriad of intimate and often novel stories of artists and institutions. Each file includes ephemera on a particular subject (an artist, corporation, or subject): exhibition announcements, clippings, press releases, brochures, pamphlets, photographs, resumes, artist’s statements, exhibition catalogs, and more, a panoply of snippets from the lives and works of American artists (with an expansive definition of “American”). For some of the lesser-known artists in the Files, these small slips of paper are the only available materials we have for research and study.
As a Summer Scholar intern at AA/PG, I had the opportunity to sort through seventeen boxes of woefully unorganized ephemera, attempting to merge the subject files on photographers and inventors from the Photographic History Collection of the National Museum of American History with AA/PG’s Art & Artists’ Files. The types of ephemera in these boxes ranged from patents for photographic technology (from multiple countries), photocopies of master’s theses, photographs and slides, and handwritten letters to whole magazines, exhibition catalogues, self-published books, and anything else on paper you can think of. I knew that attention to detail and scrupulous documentation would be necessary for keeping track of everything for this project, so I set five goals for the process and result:
- Clear out the backlog of old ephemera held by the AA/PG
- Add relevant and potentially valuable research material to Art & Artists Files
- Gain experience processing “archival” or ephemera materials.
- Create accessible records for wider range of photographic artists in the collection.
- Establish a repeatable personal process for doing this sort of work if it comes across in my career in the future.
The main challenges I faced when attempting to achieve these goals were the disorganization of the boxes and undoing the partial processing done in the past, which made finding out what we had and where to put it challenging; establishing the criteria for what to keep and what to get rid of; and filing hundreds of physical materials into our folders in a way that kept everything cohesive and accessible.
I set two step-by-step plans in place, one to follow for ephemera whose subject was in the Art & Artists’ Files online database and one for ephemera whose subject was new or not in our files yet. We could slot ephemera for records we did have right into our subzero room of file cabinets, while the ephemera for records we didn’t have could be set aside into boxes to be looked over later. Because there were over 850 individual subjects represented in the boxes, I had to develop some strict criteria for what to keep and what to weed, based on what was already in the AA/PG collections. Many libraries face issues with space, and there are already thousands of files in the Art & Artists’ Files collection, so it was time to make some tough choices. I decided on the following guidelines:
- Is the artist/corporation American?
- Do they supplement an existing file in a novel/important way?
- Is the ephemera folder too scientific or is it appropriately art-related?
- Is the piece of ephemera in good condition?
- Is the piece of ephemera rare or special in some way?
At the end of the day, the AA/PG Library collects expansively, meaning that many of the things I’d marked for weeding ended up finding a happy place in the collections instead. After doing an unexpected amount of labor to type every piece of relevant information about the materials in my master spreadsheet, rearrange everything in the boxes, and put the ephemera away in the filing cabinets, I was excited to finally have completed my project. As with many archival processing-adjacent projects, there’s still one box left for my supervisor to review after I’m gone. Through this experience, I not only learned new skills in processing diverse types of materials but also improved as a project manager. The independence that the librarians at AA/PG gave me to explore different methods for completing my project helped me gain self-confidence by allowing me to piece together my library skills in a new and challenging environment. When I started work on my processing project at the Smithsonian’s American Art and Portrait Gallery Library, I never expected to gain a practical and much-needed lesson in mindfulness—in appreciating these tiny moments, encapsulated in ink, cardstock, paper, and graphite—but I quickly learned that its important to appreciate and let myself be excited by seemingly mundane, everyday things.
If you’re interested in learning more about photography, its history, and its major players (or any other medium of art and architecture), I highly suggest checking out all of my newly added Art and Artist files at the American Art and Portrait Gallery Library.