Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Eavesdropping on the Past

The John Johnson Collection: An Archive of Printed Ephemera is the product of a unique partnership between JISC’s Digitisation Programme, the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, and ProQuest to conserve, catalogue and digitise more than 65,000 items drawn from the collection.

John de Monins Johnson (1882-1956), Printer to the University of Oxford, was interested in preserving the things people glance at and then throw into the bin. To describe them Johnson adopted the term ‘ephemera’, originally a word for an insect that lived only for a day; and he defined printed ephemera as: "Everything which would ordinarily go into the waste paper basket after use, everything printed which is not actually a book …"

His vast collection was eventually transferred to the Bodleian library and was previously only available to those who could come to it in person. As it is widely recognised as one of the most important collections of printed ephemera in the world it was a perfect project for JISC’s campaign for “transformational content” - to develop a more comprehensive collection of significant content and place it as the foundation of learning and teaching and research in the UK. The collection is available free of charge to all UK universities, further education institutions, schools and public libraries. Both Further and Higher Education students are increasingly using primary source material of this nature to support their research. School pupils, meanwhile, are increasingly being encouraged to use primary resources as a means to draw their own conclusions about how people lived in different periods, and much of the material selected for the Electronic Ephemera project was identified as being directly relevant to many subjects within the National Curriculum.

The material selected for conservation, cataloguing and digitisation includes posters and handbills for theatrical and non-theatrical entertainments, broadsides relating to murders and executions, book and journal prospectuses, popular topographical prints, and a wealth of different kinds of printed advertising material. The resulting on-line collection will form an invaluable resource for researchers and students interested in the histories of consumption, leisure, gender, popular culture, commerce, technology, crime, and a host of other areas. With each item presented as a full-colour, high-resolution facsimile, the John Johnson Collection will also be indispensable for researchers studying the development of printing and visual culture in modern Britain.