Ephemerality and digital dark ages; or, a day in the life of a mayfly

Over the last two years, the Burns Library Archives and Manuscripts team have made clear strides in how our donors and our subject area curators identify, evaluate, and select born digital material for inclusion in the archives. We’ve reimagined our workflows to increase our capacity to acquire born-digital content, and have put in place safeguards to ensure that incoming digital content–whether it is a photographic archive stored in Google Drive or a mysterious floppy disk from 1993–is stabilized at the start of the archival stewardship process. Also, while we’re implementing new tools and workflows, we’re also joyfully busting down those long-held notions that archives are only “old things” on paper.

This work is important. As a society, we are creating more content than ever before, and we’re creating that content using technologies and services that render content more ephemeral than newspapers of a 100 years ago. Technological development moves so quickly that, in a relatively short period of time, it has become almost impossible to access information in what were once common formats.

engraving titled The Holy Family with the Mayfly
Dürer, Albrecht. 1495. The Holy Family with the Mayfly. Engraving on laid paper.

You may have learned about the European Dark Ages in grade school. In historiography, the term “Dark Ages” -first coined by Renaissance humanists- connotes a lack of contemporary written history and material cultural achievements in general. It is something of a pejorative term, a criticism from a place of perceived cultural superiority. Why, you may be asking, am I writing about the Middle Ages? Well, many experts from a variety of fields and professions are warning of a new dark age–the Digital Dark Age–hovering like a stormy cloud on our shared horizon.

The Oxford English Dictionary dates the usage of the word “ephemera” to Middle English. It’s attributed to Aristotle1 who, intrigued by the brief lifespan of the mayfly, considered it to be an exceptional representation of a category of animals that he called the Ephemeroptera2. Like Aristotle before them, both Islamic and Western European philosophers of the Middle Ages hypothesized that the fly’s very brief lifespan was related to the littleness, or exility3, of its soul, an assumption which placed the mayfly very low on the list of Most Important Animals in the Medieval world.

“Ephemera” is first recorded in English in a 14th-century translation of a 13th-century title, Bartholomew de Glanville’s De Proprietatibus Rerum. In this work, we see metaphorical meaning taking root:  “Effimera, one dayes feuer is as it were the heete of one day.” Taken literally, the ephemera is a type of fever lasting the lifecycle of one mayfly. Taken figuratively, we also understand that we’re dealing with a relatively unremarkable fever. It is through this process that we can see the word “ephemeral” evolve from a literal meaning referring to types of animals to include an association with measurable units of time and assumptions of value.

Page from the De proprietatibus rerum
Bartholomaeus, Anglicus, and donor DSI Burndy Library. 1275. [De proprietatibus rerum] [manuscript]. [last quarter of 13th century]. http://archive.org/details/deproprietatibu00bart.
Dictionary entry for the word “ephemeral”
Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language : in Which the Words Are Deduced from Their Originals, and Illustrated in Their Different Significations by Examples from the Best Writers: to Which Are Prefixed, a History of the Language, and an English Grammar. London: Printed by W. Strahan, for J. and P. Knapton … [and 4 others], 1755.

Samuel Johnson is cited as the first recorded user of the term “ephemerae” in a print context (1751) to mean the “papers of the day” in reference to newspapers, pamphlets, advertisements, and the like4. By the 20th century, ephemera and ephemeral were interpreted to mean, broadly, something of no lasting significance. More specifically, it came to mean paper items that were meant to be thrown away. When these items are viewed through an archival lens, though, they may actually hold tremendous sentimental, artifactual, and/or research value.

Like traditional publishing platforms such as newspapers and magazines, the internet is a medium used to publish content. However, I’ll ask you to take a moment to consider the similarities and differences between the two following examples:

  1. Paper has an average lifespan of 100-500 years. Highly acidic old newspapers from the early 1900s often grow brittle, and the ink may have run or dried to become unreadable. In 1900, Rowell’s American Newspaper Directory5 estimated that there were about 20,000 different newspapers in the United States, including dailies, weeklies, monthlies, and quarterlies. 
  2. Websites and uploaded content have an average lifespan of 100 days. Embedded hyperlinks are frequently broken, programming languages and scripts are constantly superseded by new alternatives, and commercial hosting services can easily shut down or erase content at will. At the time of writing this, there were 1,931,072,252 websites in existence.6
identification guide to common digital media carriers
“Know Your Media | A Guide to the Most Common Types of Digital Media Found in Archives.” n.d. Accessed February 25, 2022. https://lib.utsa.edu/knowyourmedia/

The digital environment has provided an interesting landscape that challenges our perceptions as to what is of ephemeral value and what is not. To do this important work, it takes strategic intent, skilled labor, strong infrastructure, and continuous maintenance to ensure that the lifespan of digital content is extended beyond the here and now. Certainly, content creators are hoping that their work lasts longer than the lifespan of a mayfly! 

  1.  “ephemera, adj. and n.1”. OED Online. December 2021. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/63198 (accessed February 14, 2022).
  2. “Ephemeroptera.” n.d. Accessed February 25, 2022. https://ucmp.berkeley.edu/arthropoda/uniramia/ephemeroptera.html.
  3. “Exility Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster.” n.d. Accessed February 25, 2022. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/exility?utm_campaign=sd&utm_medium=serp&utm_source=jsonld.
  4.  Garner, Anne. “State of the Discipline: Throwaway History: Towards a Historiography of Ephemera.” Book History 24, no. 1 (2021): 244-263. doi:10.1353/bh.2021.0008.
  5.  “Teachinghistory.Org.” n.d. Accessed February 25, 2022. https://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/22927.
  6.  “Internet Live Stats – Internet Usage & Social Media Statistics.” n.d. Accessed February 25, 2022. https://www.internetlivestats.com/.

-Elizabeth Carron, Senior Accessioning Archivist, John J. Burns Library

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