Research centres

Centre for Ephemera Studies

Letterforms"...the ephemera of today becomes the evidential data of tomorrow..." John Johnson

Ephemera Studies

The study of ephemera – defined by Maurice Rickards as 'the minor transient documents of everyday life' – is an emerging discipline. It focuses on printed items, other than books and serial publications, for their evidential data (though manuscript documents, especially isolated ones, are also included). John Johnson, whose words are quoted at the head of this page, amassed the collection of ephemera now at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and was one of the first twentieth-century scholars to recognize the importance of ephemera. Others have followed his example, rescuing and preserving minor documents in their various fields of interest.

Thus, over the years, there have emerged numerous collections of apparently insignificant oddments – labels, tickets, forms, handbills, messages, stationery, advertising material – items that were intended in most cases for a brief life but which, with hindsight, illuminate their time.

The Centre

The Centre – the first of its kind in the world – is housed in and administered by the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication of the University of Reading. Formal approval for the Centre was granted in 1992, and it was inaugurated by Lord Briggs in May 1993. Asa Briggs, a distinguished social and cultural historian and committed ephemerist, has long been an advocate of the study of ephemera and agreed to become the Centre's first Patron.

The Centre's first Director is Michael Twyman, and in the first few years he was supported by Maurice Rickards, who was an Associate Fellow of the University until his death in 1998. Martin Andrews is the Centre's Deputy Director; the remaining staff are all volunteers, including: Amoret Tanner, Diana Mackarill, Sally de Beaumont, Barbara Morris, Nan Ridehalgh. Diane Bilbey is the first point of contact for the Centre and acts as its administrator.

At the heart of the Centre is the collection of ephemera built up by Maurice Rickards in order to demonstrate the diversity of ephemera and their potential for study. It is a representative collection of material consisting of around 20,000 items, which are used in relation to teaching both within the Department and on the Centre's short courses. It also provides scholars with material for research. Maurice Rickards donated this collection – now known as the Rickards Collection – to the Foundation for Ephemera Studies, who have placed it on permanent loan in the University.

In addition, the Centre has access to numerous collections of ephemera in the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication and in other parts of the University. For example, there are major holdings of material relating to the biscuit manufacturer Huntley & Palmers and the agricultural engineering firm of Ransome; proofs and original artwork of the security printers De La Rue; a set of trade material available from exhibitors at the Great Exhibition of 1851; two of the largest survivng collections of work by nineteenth-century jobbing printers (John Soulby and the firm of Kitchin, both of Ulverston); the John Lewis collection of ephemera; the Dorothy and Sydney Spellman collection of Victorian sheet music covers. The University also has several smaller, well-focused collections of ephemera, and its substantial collection of publishers' archives includes ephemera (preserved with other documents).

Arrangements can be made to see items in the Rickards Collection by appointment -


The major objective of the Centre is to promote a serious study of ephemera, and all its activities have this in mind. In particular, it aims to publish research tools for ephemerists and to run courses on various aspects of ephemera. Its specific activities so far have included:

The completion and editing of Maurice Rickards, The Encyclopedia of Ephemera, (London: The British Library; New York, Routledge, 2000). This groundbreaking publication won the Library Association's Besterman/McColvin Medal for 'an outstanding work of reference' for 2000.

The holding of one-day symposia and workshops on such topics as:

  • 'Paper in the production of ephemera',
  • 'The Printer and the community',
  • 'Victorian sheet-music covers',
  • 'Ephemera and photography',
  • 'The letterpress poster',
  • 'Chromolithography',
  • 'Gravers and cutters: printing from wood',
  • 'Scrapbooks',
  • 'Transport, maps, and ephemera',
  • 'Entertainment ephemera',
  • 'Hands-on printing',
  • 'The dating of ephemera',
  • 'Promoting trades: nineteenth-century billheads, trade cards, manufacturers' catalogues',
  • 'Print identification'.

The completion of a 'Register of Ephemera collections publicly available in the United Kingdom'. This is available in electronic form and also as a paper document.

Staff have lectured and given short courses on ephemera in many parts of the world and publish regularly in the field. The main project of the Centre at present is the compilation of an all-embracing thesaurus of graphic (artefactual) terms for ephemera.

New acquisition

The Centre for Ephemera Studies has recently been given a remarkable collection of around 2000 printed and hand-written documents relating to business ephemera. Included in this gift are fine examples of decorative letterheads and fascinating early examples of forms that span two centuries of commercial activity before the advent of computers. The collection has been generously donated by Mr Andrew Gold who for many years worked for the ledger manufacturer Twinlock, and is an expert on paper watermarks. Part of the collection is already being used for post-graduate research and a small display of the decorative letterheads for printing companies has been held in the department. A more detailed description of the collection will be added soon.

Centre for Information Design Research

The Centre for Information Design Research is a multidisciplinary research centre based at the University of Reading. The Centre's research focuses on the design of complex information so that it meets the needs of the people who will use it.

'Using' information can range from finding information initially, through understanding it and using it to make decisions or carry out actions, to storing it and being able to refer back to it at some future point. Simplification and information design apply across media, since information is available to people in many ways: in documents, on computers, phones or other mobile devices, on signs and public displays.

Our research aims to take a step back from the immediate issues of what documents to produce or web pages to create. We aim to understand the information needs of people using products and services, so that designers' choices of what to provide and  how to provide it are better informed. Understanding information needs means understanding what people want to find out and through what channels they are likely to access information. It also means understanding the human limits in attention, comprehension and memory that can affect people's ability to use that information when it is delivered to them.

The Centre brings together expertise in graphic design, interaction design and psychology, with input from specialist researchers in technology development, linguistics, economics and law.

The relationship between information providers and the needs of the people who will use information is at the heart of the Centre's research. On the one hand we work closely with organisations to understand how their technical systems and management processes influence the information they deliver. On the other hand we emphasise the involvement of end-users in work on information design problems. The Centre has its own panel of non-expert volunteers who take part in research studies, testing out and giving opinions on design solutions.

More information can be found on the  Centre for Information Design Research website.

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Centre for Ephemera Studies

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See also

  • School of Arts and Communication Design 
  • Research at the University
  • Consultancy at the University


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