Printed Ephemera Collection gets a new lease of life online

1 June 2010

Postcard_smallThe Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, has launched today The John Johnson Collection: An Archive of Printed Ephemera (, the result of a three-year collaboration with the leading electronic publisher, ProQuest. The aim of the project, funded by JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee), has been to catalogue, conserve, digitize and deliver online some 65,000 items from the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, housed in the Bodleian Library.  
The web-based resource features five broad subject headings:

  • 19th-century Entertainment includes images of lace-edged theatre programmes from Windsor Castle, handbills advertising Signor Bertolotto’s Industrious Fleas, and brightly coloured sets and characters from miniature toy theatres.
  • Booktrade items featuring prospectuses of books and journals, yellow-back covers by Edmund Evans, trade sale catalogues, and bookplates (which include those of notable individuals such as William Gladstone).
  • Popular prints include records of topography and architecture, biblical, historical and domestic scenes, vibrant embossed scraps for albums and pictorial note headings.
  • Crimes, murders and executions feature nearly a thousand broadsides, one of the most popular forms of street literature, together with a wealth of related material, affording vivid insights into the judicial system and its punishments, particularly the application of the death penalty and transportation.
  • Advertising traces the development of consumerism through a remarkable array of advertisements.

Representing some of the most visited sections of the Collection, these subjects were selected on the basis of their widespread interest across the educational sector. Access to the resource is free for all Higher Education and Further Education institutions, schools and public libraries in the UK, while the service is available for purchase to overseas institutions.

The online resource has been developed to maximize the research potential of its valuable content through detailed cataloguing, high-quality images and sophisticated search functionality. It allows users full access to approximately 170,000 high-resolution full-colour images accompanied by detailed descriptive metadata, searchable text (with four-way optical character recognition), and a number of specially commissioned scholarly essays that respond to a diverse selection of materials in the Collection. Future developments of the online resource will include cross-linking of items in the Crimes, murders and executions section of the Collection to external resources available online.

The John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera is one of the largest and most important collections of such material in the world, consisting of over 1.5 million items. The Collection provides extensive documentary evidence of our cultural, social, industrial and commercial history over the last five centuries, especially with regard to the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Assembled by John de Monins Johnson (1882-1956), Printer to the University from 1925 to 1946, it was transferred from Oxford University Press to the Bodleian Library in 1968.  

Richard Ovenden, Associate Director and Keeper of Special Collections, Bodleian Library, said: ‘Regarded as the most significant single collection of ephemera in the UK, the John Johnson Collection has been one of the Bodleian’s least known treasures. Through the digitization programme we are now able to make significant sections of this primary resource available for teaching, learning and research both within Oxford and beyond.’  

‘Until now the materials in the John Johnson Collection in the Bodleian Library have remained largely hidden to scholars and researchers’ said Mary Sauer-Games, ProQuest’s vice-president of publishing for Chadwyck-Healey.  ‘We are very pleased to work with both JISC and Bodleian to conserve, catalogue, and digitize this highly coveted evidence of Britain’s cultural, social, industrial, and technological heritage.  Ephemera provide scholars and educators with a wholly untouched record of the past.’

Alastair Dunning, JISC Digitisation Programme Manager said, ‘The ephemera that form the John Johnson collection are a valuable yet neglected source for historians. The conversion of this collection to digital form now permits scholars to access an astonishingly diverse range of material, allowing them to explore the newssheets, popular prints, adverts, and other items that made up people’s everyday  life of the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth century.’

The John Johnson project was part of a £22m digitization programme managed by JISC with funding from HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) to make available a wide range of heritage and scholarly resources of national importance, including sound, moving pictures, newspapers, maps, images, cartoons, census data, journals and parliamentary papers for use by the UK further and higher education communities.

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