The summer of 2016. London. A heatwave: temperatures soared above 30 degrees. While the rest of England was melting, I was sat in the rather chilly staff area of the British Library pouring over hundred year old paper associated with World War One. The official title of the placement I undertook was ‘First World War Ephemera’ and was run as part of a new official British Library scheme to welcome PhD students to work on a pre-designated topic. During the first week of my placement everyone was wonderfully nice to me – polite, enthusiastic about my doctoral subject – and yet I felt like a fraud. Why was the British Library allowing one of its staff, the ever patient Alison Bailey, to take so much time away from her own job to train me? What on earth could I add to this institution that these far more learned people could not? The answer, as it turns out, was time and a niche interest in a particular subject. Having someone come in and work on a very specific subject area (which in the case of most of us placement students coincided with their area of doctoral research) with a finite goal meant that the Library could complete specific tasks that otherwise would not been completed.
The guard book (a special type of bound book specifically designed for loose bits of paper to be attached to – like a large scrapbook) that I was asked to catalogue was Tab.11748.aa.4: ‘A collection of miscellaneous leaflets, programmes, etc. relating to the European War.’ The book held a wonderful collection of ephemeral items such as playbills produced by troops on the Western Front, the wrappers that went around official war posters, and even handmade whist cards. The majority of the items seem to have been sent in by the troops themselves, therefore are particularly interesting as it can be seen what some of the men in the army during the First World War thought worth keeping for posterity.
I then moved on to catalogue Tab.11748.aa.2: ‘A collection of prayers, hymns, specials forms of service, forms for rolls of honour. In Memoriam cards and verses, leaflets relating to relief work, etc. issued in connection with the war.’ This collection comprised of memorial items such as rolls of honour, designs for memorial crosses and cards created by parents after their son had died in battle. It also contained poems and hymns, composed by a range of authors and in a range of printed forms, some were simply typescript, others printed with ornamental borders.
Cataloguing this material was not easy. Ephemera, most popularly described as ‘the minor transient documents of everyday life’ (Rickards, 1988) is the stuff of history that falls through the cracks. The items are mostly small, sometimes but not always printed, and are sometimes completely text-based, completely image-based, or a combination of the two. Describing these diverse items in a consistent way so that future researchers can find them was understandably a challenge.
Once they were catalogued part of my remit was to try and highlight to the public (and other interested persons) that this type of material was actually held by the British Library. I wrote several blogs on topics as diverse as vegetable shows in France during the war and ephemera concerning Edith Cavell’s death. In addition I supplied an online article for their WW1 website, and a more scholarly one which will be published by the electronic British Library Journal in due course.
The Library is one of the largest in the world and I was constantly in awe of the dedication of its staff and their breadth of knowledge. I practically had to be dragged away from the building on the last day as I had enjoyed my time there that much. Not only were the staff (especially my mentor) kind, patient, and interesting conversationalists, but the material itself; the research involved in cataloguing it and the thrill of getting to write something that the public would actually read (vegetable show writing is apparently my true calling) combined to make my placement a genuine pleasure. Soon the British Library will be announcing its 2017 PhD placement opportunities: maybe you too could find some obscure gems hidden in their collections.