When telling the story of a place, historians often turn to official documentation first – published books and periodicals, legal documents, and reports. Increasingly, however, ephemeral materials such as postcards and menus that were created for short-term use, are consulted as documentation of a place’s day-to-day life and culture.
Staff from the Pepperdine University Libraries Special Collections and Archives visited the Malibu Library in July to discuss the value of ephemera in telling Malibu’s story. During their talk, Melissa Nykanen (Associate University Librarian for Special Collections and University Archives) and Kelsey Knox (Archivist for Special Collections and University Archives) also shared examples of ephemera from the Malibu Historical Collection at Pepperdine, which has been widely popular with scholars, students, and the public alike.
A Malibu Times article by Judy Abel captured the evening’s atmosphere of excitement and discovery:
Since ephemera was meant to be discarded, it does not have the marks of other historical documents.
“One of the challenges is they don’t have dates on them,” Nykanen said. “The best we can do is ask around or guess. That’s why we like to talk to the community—to get information we don’t have.”
Some of that information was provided by Pete Haynes, who wrote about his childhood recollections in his book 1950’s Malibu: Growing Up in Paradise. As live bait tickets from the Malibu Pier were displayed, he commented he sold them as a kid. “An anchovy was 5-cents.”
Jim McHenry discovered his parents’ telephone number listed in a slim Malibu phone book—displayed with numbers only five digits long. McHenry and Haynes were part of the first graduating class from Webster Elementary School. McHenry recalled speaking daily to his friends in his canyon on their shared party line.
Summarizing the importance of ephemera, journalist Suzanne Guldiman noted in a Malibu Surfside News piece (subscription required) that ephemeral materials “open a window into the past, offering researchers a perspective on the minutiae of everyday life.”
Malibu residents are invited to consider donating their personal collections to the Pepperdine University’s Special Collections, which available for view by the public by prior appointment. The Pepperdine Digital Collections can be viewed online at http://pepperdine.contentdm.oclc.org/.
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