is it ephemeral?

I work largely with sources that you would call “ephemeral” in my research these days. By that, I simply mean “in danger of disappearing easily, or have already done so.” Things prone to disappearing can range from things like theater playbills and concert programs to magazines and newspapers, to gum wrappers and signs and internet forum posts, not to mention non-archived Web sites and things that can be lost easily in a hard drive crash with no backup.* I’m being somewhat narrowminded by considering “non-ephemeral” sources to basically be books, but they are made for persistence through time, and they are often so redundant that they are de facto preserved through this.

In any case, I’ve been thinking as I write my dissertation, especially the current chapter that I’m working on, about what happens to ephemera when one decides to preserve it in a non-ephemeral form. Here, I’ll use the example of reprinting something in a book or putting it on microfilm. Not all magazines and newspapers are thrown out completely, although they do tend to be tossed out en masse every week throughout the world. Newspaper companies keep archives and libraries bind periodicals for preservation and (through) access and redundancy. Things get microfilmed. Sometimes they are reproduced in a traditional bound form at some point, as though they were books to begin with.

I’m working with two authors in particular who published almost solely in magazines that are now extremely hard to get ahold of, about 120 years ago. I’m studying the act of reprinting those stories in book form, here in anthologies of the “complete works” of those authors.** I talk a lot about the crucial role that reprinting in the form of an anthology plays in access and preservation: without reprints, these stories, published in sources that are very easily lost to us, may never have been accessible at all after a few decades of their original publication. The paper of these types of publications is rarely very durable and as time goes on, the surviving owners of the publications tend to throw them out, or the executors of their estates do it for them.

In fact, one magazine in particular is an extreme example of ephemerality. It was a handwritten magazine – really, a zine from the 1880s – that was passed around between members of a literary club, who annotated it as they went along, writing in the margins and then passing it on to the next member, sometimes making their own handwritten copies as well. In this way, the publication and distribution was profoundly decentralized and depended entirely on the efforts of the members of that club. Yet, they were all quite committed to literature and to each other, and so it was relatively successful – if you can call a magazine with only a few hand-written, hand-circulated copies successful.

The problem with the issues of this magazine (before it later was printed and sold commercially) is that they are literally no longer available. Garakuta bunko from the late 1880s is simply inaccessible to us as literary scholars and historians. There are no accessible copies, and possibly no surviving copies at all. This was the case even in the early 20th century, when the extant copies dwindled to a single set held in a private collection; only the tables of contents were published, reprinted in a book on the literary club. Now, that private collection is even inaccessible, and all we have left are those reprinted tables of contents.

Why is this important? It is now impossible for me to investigate, for example, early uses of pseudonyms by some of the authors that I study, and impossible to read their earliest works to evaluate their first efforts in literature. As this group became extremely influential from the late 1880s through the early 1900s, this is a big problem for studying its development over time, its roots, its connections with the literature of the late Edo period (1600-1867), and its early influence on others. In short, this work has been rendered impossible and these questions unanswerable.

Even as early as the 1920s, there were reprints of the publicly distributed, later issues of this magazine. It was a set of only 500 copies and its preface is extremely telling. Edited by former members of the club, the reason for the reprint is stated unequivocally: the number of surviving copies is very few, they are limited to the collections of private individuals, and the early works of club members are nearly impossible to get ahold of. It has been reprinted for posterity and for access at the time of the reprints. There are those who would like to read the works, and the reprints are made and distributed so it becomes possible again to do this.

This is a noble undertaking, and one that is extremely important to our access now. It is reasonable to wonder whether, if not for this early reprint set, even more of Garakuta bunko would be lost to the ether over time. We have more reprints now, in book form, and they are likely to persist through time thanks to this. But what if those reprints had nothing to reprint?

Finally, I come to the sticking point of all of this. It’s prompted by a question from a month or so ago: if ephemeral materials are preserved in such a way, through a digital archive, through photographs, through reprints, does that fundamentally change their nature as ephemera? I don’t have a concrete, definitive answer to this, but I do think there are two issues at the heart of this. One is a practical issue – the major difference between ephemera and other sources when attempting to create a digital archive is that there is even more impetus for careful preservation, because the danger of loss is so high. If a magazine could almost entirely disappear less than 50 years after its initial publication, what does that say about even more volatile materials? We lose a major part of the historical record and in most cases we will be unable to ever retrieve it. This means that there are historical, cultural, and literary questions that we simply cannot ask – or rather, can never answer. It reduces our understanding of the past and even of the present, given that ephemera can disappear in the blink of an eye, historically speaking.

The other issue is thornier. My answer on reprints or digital reproductions is this: it does not change the status of the source as ephemeral. Rather, I think that in some way it both attempts to obscure its ephemeral nature, and yet also makes it even more evident. What is the need for a reprint, after all, if there is no danger of disappearance? If a work is already persisting through redundancy, is there a need for preservation? And there is the issue of the reprint fundamentally altering the context, and thus the meaning, of that ephemeral source. That highlights even more its ephemeral nature, because by recuperating its pre-reprint context, its pre-preservation context, we cannot help but focus on its ephemeral nature, because we are reprinting ephemera, preserving ephemera.

In other words, we can perhaps think of reprints or digitally archived versions as separate objects entirely from the ephemera that they preserve, and this stresses even more the ephemeral nature of what has been preserved. Of course, a work reprinted in book form is less likely to be ephemeral. But what has been reprinted, a serial in a newspaper or in a magazine, is tremendously so, and this very gap in the nature of the medium is emphasized in the process. These are ephemera, preserved. Preservation does not change the fact that these sources are always, will always be, in imminent danger of permanent loss.***

Thoughts?

* In fact, I have lost some of these things that I had never considered ephemeral until they were gone. How fragile is an older hard drive full of personal data and artwork? Very. How about things you burn to a CD-ROM for safekeeping? Even worse. A personal web site that you had a few years ago? If the Internet Archive didn’t grab it, it might as well never existed. We talk quite a bit these days about the danger of things never being erased if you put them out in public, on the Internet, but they’re more endangered than we give them credit for.

** Take that with a grain of salt; “complete” is more aspirational than literal, and it has quite a lot to do with “completely” being able to know or possess the author as an author, rather than a complete set of works in themselves. I digress.

*** The fact that Garakuta bunko was reprinted in the 1920s, after all, does not change the fact that the original copies of the magazine are in grave danger of being completely lost to us. A reprint is not the same as the source that it reprints. The reprint, if not an ephemeral source in itself (this short print run of the Garakuta bunko reprint suggests that it can qualify as such), is not ephemera. But what it reprints will never stop being ephemeral.