As the name would suggest, printed ephemera tends to be transitory documents created for a specific purpose, and intended to be thrown away. The Printed Ephemera Collection at the Library of Congress comprises primary sources relating to the key events of American history, including the Revolutionary War, slavery, the Western land rush, the Civil War, women's suffrage, and the Industrial Revolution. The printed material was produced as the events unfolded and offers unique snapshots of the nation's past.
Printed ephemera has had multiple purposes, as instanced by the variety of material assembled in the online collection. A primary purpose was the distribution of information. In the days before television and radio, citizens received news by way of broadsides and printed ephemera. Printed ephemera can also reveal a new side of well-known issues and people, and can bring historical events to life.
Note: In exploring the contents of Printed Ephemera, readers may encounter attitudes and language that are jarring to contemporary sensibilities. It should be noted that broadsides and printed ephemera express the language, experience, and viewpoints of the era in which they were published.
The majority of the Printed Ephemera Collection at the Library is arranged by state of imprint. The states are ordered alphabetically, and within each state, the items are arranged chronologically. The sequence of American material is followed by international imprints ordered by country, and special classes of material grouped under a common subject, such as the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention broadsides, Lincoln material, and playbills.
The collection is housed in archival folders and placed in flat boxes and map cases. Readers visiting the Library may use the card file or the published catalog and make their requests at the front desk of the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room.
Users may browse or search keywords in the collection, make selections, and download the images. Each item included in the online collection has been digitized in a manner that captures all data on the item. Duplicate copies have usually not been digitized, nor have surfaces of items that are blank or only contain Library of Congress information that is reproduced in the bibliographic description.
Often materials of this sort were produced in such a way that more than one page of text was printed on one side of a sheet. These sheets were then folded before distribution so the different pages of text followed each other in appropriate order. These multiple formats are described in the article Page Order and Folding Diagrams.