Literature Review

*See attached at the bottom of this page for pdf of Literature Review 
Vertical Files: the Super-Eights of Tomorrow?

Though writing almost 10 years ago, Cynthia Anderson provides a viewpoint that is unfortunately still very prevalent in the library community. That is that in the digital age, with a wealth of information at our fingertips, vertical files may be obsolete. She is writing from the perspective of a library media specialist, however, I think this view is still apparent in art libraries as well. Some reasons she gives that librarians might want to continue with vertical files are the value that contain about local history, their value as primary source documents and ageless information. However, she also points out that some libraries may want to discontinue use because of internet access and lack of staff to keep it up. She suggests compromising by weeding vertical files to keep them up to date and less cumbersome, a suggestion that does nothing for improved access and in my opinion, takes up more staff time on mundane tasks that are of little benefit to your patrons.


Anderson, C. (2001). Vertical files: the super-eights of tomorrow? Book Report, 20(3), 36 – 37.


Artist Files Revealed: Documentation and Access

This publication, which can be found on the Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS/NA) website, is the result of the Artist Files Working group of the 2009 conference. The session was titled, Where Libraries and Archives Converge: Artist Files. What is interesting about this is that the session was largely based on this idea that practices taken from both libraries and archives are best for cataloging ephemera and artist files because they do exist on boundaries of these two institutions. However, this publication that came out of it, I think, places artist files back into their more traditional role in the library setting. They set out to provide some guidelines and best practices for cataloging artist files. They give a minimal and a more descriptive approach, both based on MARC. There is one element of collection level access and that is the creation of the Artist Files Online Directory, which seeks to collate this data into one searchable database. The authors of this publication encourage libraries to add their artist files to this database.


Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS/NA): Artist Files Working Group. (2009). Artist files

     revealed: Documentation and access. Retrieved November 18 from


Why Not Ephemera? The Emergence of Ephemera in Libraries

“I think that one of the challenges before the special collections community is to justify to library administrators the cost of acquiring, preserving, and making accessible ephemera for which there is no demand from a specific academic field”, states George Barnhill in this 2008 article. He is mostly concerned with visual ephemera, printed imagery, which in art libraries is big concern as well. He points to publications by institutions highlighting these collections as well as by scholars who largely used ephemeral materials as primary source documents for their research to show how we can began to see the value of these collections, and to show others the value. However, he says, these are unfortunately the exception. So, like Cooke, he aims to point out ways to increase visibility to scholars and also highlights the two main ways as being through cataloging and web inventories, or collective databases. Using examples, he also highlights the benefit of individual yet minimal catalog records, which are not terribly informative but do identify when a file exists. He also points out how a robust finding aid, even at the collection level, can draw a large amount of interest from researchers. What is also interesting about this article is that he points out that cultures who have largely been on the fringes of mainstream culture, and have historically had an “orality” of documentation of culture, he claims may also have an ephemeral history, in which he uses the example of the African American Collections at Emory University which highlight ephemera collections. He also acknowledges that even if institutions are able to begin to provide more access there are still two important questions to deal with. One is how to get scholars to use these materials, that are so different from the texts they are used to, and the second is how to get the materials to the scholars. Though there are no clear answers as of yet to these questions, Barnhill points to instruction as the most important task to increasing knowledge and interest in these collections.


Barnhill, G. (2008) Why not ephemera? The emergence of ephemera in libraries. RBM, 9(1), 127-135.

Calling in the Dark: Identifying our Ephemera Files

Jacqueline Cooke acknowledges the value of ephemera in art libraries, and suggests that in the past decade, there has been a large collective attempt among these institutions to showcase these collections and increase appreciation. She points out the two main ways of mapping ephemera being traditional library cataloging and web portals that collate data from various institutions’ ephemera collections. Of particular interest, is her discussion of the way that art ephemera collections blur the boundaries between curator and archivist, and library and archives. These collections may be created by the institution itself, making the archivist a curator as well. And they may hold value as an entire collection, opposed to just individually, while still being housed in the library but maintaining a more archival structure. She uses examples of various collections in the U.K. and U.S. to point various approaches and ultimately suggests the utilization of a two pronged approach. Institutions should continue with minimal, item level cataloging that so many are already employing, but encourages the creation of collective access through as web – based portal, as ARLIS/NA and ARLIS/UK have been working toward. She also points out the benefits that digital imaging technology can have on these collections to increase access.


Cooke, J. (2006). Finding lost relations: Identifying our ephemera files. Art Libraries Journal, 31(4), 33-41.


Ephemera: an Undervalued Resource in the Art Library

Authors Elizabeth Lawes and Vicky Webb define art ephemera in this article as “material which has been created and conceived by an artist or the gallery representing them to publicize and exhibition or event” (2006, p. 3). They point to the significance of these materials in that they are often the only documentation that an artist event existed, as small galleries often do not publish  exhibition catalogs, often only cards or press releases, which provide a unique glimpse into the an artists, or galleries, history. The problem of collecting this material is the continuous supply of these items provided to institutions, making the question of how to best maintain these collections, a difficult one. They briefly discuss how larger institutions have been using templates to minimally catalog this material in artist files, but often this work, as is tedious and time consuming, is undertaken by trained volunteers. This brief article aims to show the importance of ephemera as a research resource and the trend in the libraries, archives and museums to highlight these collections.


Lawes, E. & Webb, V. (2006). Ephemera: an undervalued resource in the art library. Art Libraries Journal,

     31(4), 3-4.  


Managing and Cataloguing Ephemera Collections

Stephen Lowther, cataloger for the Wellcome Libray for the History and Understanding of Medicine in London provides in this article an example of how to catalog ephemera in a different way than what we normally see with vertical files. The approach he lays out has created an accessible and well used ephemera collection of 27,000 items. What is interesting about this approach is the multiplicity of approaches it utilizes. The items were divided by subject into various boxes, and then chronologically where applicable, and alphabetically by name or brand. Each box was cataloged and given its own unique call number. In this way, the boxes make up series and subseries as you might see in an archival collections. Given that each of these were described to an appropriate level, this seems like it would be sufficient. However, Lowther and his colleagues went on to catalog each item within the box as well. Obviously, not every institution has the resources to do this sort of in depth cataloging, but this article does provide a different sort of framework to begin thinking about cataloging ephemera.


Lowther, S. (2006) Managing and cataloguing ephemera collections. Art Libraries Journal, 31(4), 9-13.


Today’s Ephemera, Tomorrow’s Historical Documentation: Access Options for Artist Files

Terrie Wilson and Erika Dowell believe that the artist file, or vertical file, is one of the most underutilized resources in the art library, and one of the most valuable. This article focuses on cataloging solutions for these collections, that will enhance access the most. An important consideration the authors make throughout this article is the lack of funding available for cataloging these collections, and the amount of labor involved. In this way, the authors are able to address what are the best, and also most practical ways to increase access. It is often assumed that art libraries are going to have much of the same material in their artist files, the authors operate under the opposite assumption. Institutions might have files on the same artists, but the contents will vary dramatically based on locality and specialty, which make them such a rich and unique resource. Wilson and Dowell recommend sampling the collection to see what is the best way of cataloging them. Librarians might want to look at overlap with other institutions in the area, other material on the artist, and whether items within are cataloged at other institutions. This might also help the librarian to speculate on the potential audience, which is important to keep in mind when thinking about access issues. They also suggest paying special attention to subsets within a collection that may require additional access, for their research value or because they are tied to the institutions mission. They authors show the value of the artist files by demonstrating a case study where a student successfully located information they were seeking. They also compared the contents of the folder to other institutions and found them to be different and unique.  Finally, the artists summarize the various options, through a cost benefit analysis that looks at what makes the most sense for different collections. They show how individual MARC cataloging can be beneficial, but so can taking cues from archival finding aids. They also discuss digitization of the materials as a further access option, but warn that this should be done with careful consideration of copyright, cost and value of the materials.


Wilson, T.L. & Dowell, E. (2003). Today’s ephemera, tomorrow’s historical documentation: Access

     options for artist files. Journal of Library Administration, 39(2/3), 43-60.



Erin Matson,
Dec 13, 2010, 7:11 PM