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SCRC Behind the Scenes

e-phemerally yours

May 10th, 2013 by Michele Combs

The ubiquitous “e-” (as in e-mail, e-commerce, e-business) has crept into every aspect of our lives, so recently I’ve been thinking about “e-phemera.” Not about the ephemeral nature of all digital files (we all know they can vanish with the click of a button, the sudden death of a hard drive, or the Blue Screen of Death), but rather how our definition of ephemera should be adjusted to accommodate the digital world.  Not ephemera, but e-phemera.

Wikipedia defines ephemera as “any transitory written or printed matter not meant to be retained or preserved.” It then goes on to point out that many forms of ephemera are in fact collectible. There are two important points here. The first is that “ephemera” does not mean “worthless” — ephemera can be of great value to scholars of social and cultural history as well as to collectors. The second is that the classification of something as “ephemera” is not determined by the value placed on a thing by others (e.g., collectors or researchers) but rather by the nature of the material itself, whether it was intended for long-term existence.

At first glance, the necessary update to the definition seems clear: “any transitory written, printed or digital matter not meant to be retained or preserved.” But is it that simple?

Beyond the formal definition, we all have a working definition of what’s classed as ephemera in paper terms: receipts, ticket stubs, menus, bills, stamps, etc. Many of these things now exist in digital form, which doesn’t change the fact that they are still classed as ephemera. How should this working definition be expanded to accommodate items that never existed in a physical form?

When I send an email I can tick the little box that says “Send read receipt.” In a little while (assuming my recipient doesn’t foil my plan by refusing to send it), I’ll get an automated email that says “Your email was read at xxxx.” That’s pretty clearly e-phemera — it’s not meant to be kept, it’s just a quick notification. It could just as easily be a pop-up dialog box that vanishes when you click on it, rather than an actual email.

Here’s a more complicated example, however, which demonstrates that people think about digital things in a fundamentally different way than physical things. My husband and I went to the zoo last weekend, and in two hours he took over 250 digital photos. When we got home I quizzed him about this vast number, and he said, “Oh, I plan to throw most of them away.”  Based on my conversations with family, friends and colleagues who have digital cameras, this attitude seems to be pretty universally shared.  A physical photo would never be considered ephemera, but if most creators of digital photos intend 99% of them for the trash — as “not meant to be retained or preserved” — does that make digital photos by their nature “ephemera”?

Further complicating the question is that the determination of whether something is “meant to be retained” is increasingly being made by software algorithms and service providers rather than by its creator. If anything ought to qualify as “e-phemera” it would seem to be Tweets, and yet Twitter keeps them around for years (though their default search only hits the past seven days). Whose intention should be considered here: Twitter’s or the tweeter’s?

With e-phemera we don’t have the traditional paper option of simply foldering them, putting them in a box, and forgetting about them shelving them in an environmentally controlled facility. We have to move e-phemera to a server, maybe create a PDF use copy so researchers can see it, attach metadata to it, migrate and monitor the original file — not just once, but indefinitely.

Consider these two situations:

  • You’re given the papers of Joe Johnson, small business owner. It includes two CDs with read receipts for every invoice he’s sent out via email and e-cards sent to/received from clients (“Thanks for your great service, Joe!”), and ten DVDs with hours of footage recorded by the surveillance camera installed above and behind his front counter.
  • You’re given the papers of Mary Smith, noted veterinarian and cat specialist. It includes 500 CD-ROMs, 300 of which contain funny cat videos captured off YouTube and 200 of which contain hundreds of unidentified photos of random cats, many of which are blurry, out of focus, and/or nearly identical.

Which of these are ephemera, and how do you deal with them? Should you spend valuable resources storing these digital files on your server, migrating them to new formats, running checksums to make sure they haven’t decayed? Should you deem them ephemera — never meant to be retained — and simply let the CDs and DVDs decay over time? Do you simply weed them and make a note that the collection originally contained them? In case B, do you weed the photos that are of obviously poor quality, on the assumption that (like most people) Ms Smith would eventually have deleted them?

These situations will arise more and more frequently, and given the enormous glut of digital data being created it’s important that we consider them.  So what do you think about e-phemera?

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