A Fleeting Look at Politics Past

November 2, 2004

Nick Marinello

It's stuffed into mailboxes, hung from doorknobs and planted into neutral grounds. It comes in all shapes, sizes and colors: political ephemera, the litter of democracy.

owenBy the time Election Day arrives on Nov. 2, most voters will have been assailed by an onslaught of flyers, brochures, sample ballots and signs shouting urgent political messages and recommendations.

Come Nov. 3, however, most of this material will become as dated and useless as a printed parade route on Ash Wednesday.

But that doesn't mean that political junk mail and signage loses all its value once an election is over. It just may take a while to become relevant again.

"Archivists talk about primary value and secondary value of items," says Leon Miller, manuscripts librarian at Howard-Tilton Memorial Library. "Secondary value is how something is viewed at a later time by people who were not the originally intended audience."

According to Miller, the transient nature of political advertisements is intrinsically interesting to researchers. "The piece is not created to be preserved, so much of its value is unintentional."

And that secondary, unintended value can create a splendid window to the past. Louisiana Political Ephemera, a component of Howard-Tilton's Special Collections, offers a wealth of information to those doing scholarly research or simply poking into the state's colorful political past. With pieces that go back as far as the mid 1800s, the collection is among the strongest of its kind in the state, says Miller.

Among the thousands of preserved pieces is an address by the Louisiana campaign committee for Ulysses S. Grant, a 1938 flyer offering a free poll tax and a campaign card for Martha Robinson, a political reformer who unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the New Orleans City Council in 1954.

Most items were things meant to be thrown away, and while they may not possess the archival sex appeal of other documents in Special Collections, such as Robert E. Lee's Gettysburg letters or Jefferson Davis' papers, they offer a particular look into the past.

"The way the wording [of the pieces] is constructed will give researchers 50 years later an idea of what was influential at the time," says Kenneth Owen, a library technician currently overseeing the Louisiana Collection. Owen spent two years indexing the political ephemera.

"It can be the only thing that gives you an idea of the race of the person running," says Owen. "When did blacks begin running for office Uptown? You can see their photo- graphs and you can tell."

Owen, who retired as librarian emeritus at the University of New Orleans before coming out of retirement to work at Tulane, painstakingly indexed and annotated every piece in the collection, listing each item by election date, candidate and subject heading.

"It's fun to work with this," says Owen. "We have had people come in from all over the country to use this material, and it is so much more useful to them if there is a listing." "If you have a large body of material but can't get inside of it, you're just spinning your wheels," he says.

For all his passion to make material accessible to the public, Owen says he has trained himself to be dispassionate about the material itself. "I do not put value on them," he says. "What would be unimportant to one researcher could be of tremendous importance to another."

For his part, Miller admits he is charmed by odd-shaped pieces such as those that are die-cut to reflect the ballot number of a candidate. Also, he says he likes the pieces from the 1920s and '30s that reflect the aesthetic sensibilities of the time. Some things transcend fashion, however.

"Ego never changes," says Miller. "You can't really be a politician without having a huge ego. The ego in this collection is breathtaking."

A sample of the political ephemera collection can be found on the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library website in the Special Collections section. Anyone interested in getting rid of, er, donating any political material can send it via campus mail to Special Collections, Jones Hall.

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Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000