Infatuated with Ephemera

Most family records were put in the trash at the end of the day.

I’m not referring to birth certificates or death records. The tossed records were letters, programs, church bulletins, and newsletters. Once they served their purpose, they were discarded. But if kept tucked away in a box under the bed, it’s probably because they were mementos commemorating special events of a special someone’s life.

These unofficial paper documents are what family historians call “ephemera.” And if you have some stored in a closet or drawer, you may hold part of your ancestor’s story. Who knew that great-grandmother was on that committee organizing a suffrage march?  Was grandpa really a tenor in the church choir?

These documents hold your family information, but they may also list dozens of their friends and neighbors.  

One hundred years ago, in 1922, my mother-in-law, just nine years old, played the lead actor in her school play. She played “Virgie” in “The Littlest Rebel,” thirteen years before Shirley Temple played the same character in the iconic film! She was proud of her accomplishment and saved a folded program in a copy of the novel on which the play was based.

Now, to the importance of sharing. Look at the program. The whole cast is listed! Maybe your relative was also in that play and you never knew it!

Before throwing ephemera in the trash, check with your local library or historical society. Perhaps they would like to have them in their collection. If you wish to keep that memento, you could share a digital image instead. And before tossing a box of old papers when clearing out an estate or when your organization is house cleaning, consider whether the documents have community value. See if you have old directories, historical sketches, newsletters, membership rosters, meeting minutes, or programs, from the arts, businesses, athletic events, agricultural shows, neighborhood associations, scouting, professional organizations, reunions, special interests, schools, etc. They are a lens into the lives of our ancestors, so preserving them is worthwhile.

I hope you become infatuated with ephemera too!

If you’re interested in donating your ephemera to the Kenton County Public Library, contact the Local History and Genealogy Department by calling 859-962-4070 or emailing

You can also scan your collection to create digital images at the Local History and Genealogy Department, Covington Branch, 2nd floor (Scheduling an appointment is encouraged  859-962-4070).

 Written by Local History and Genealogy Department Library Associate Bobbye Winterberg. 

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