Today collectors confront a new generation of opportunities. The collecting of ephemera, an under-examined and little understood extension of books and the works on paper category, is in its infancy, you could say in it’s own 1830s period. The databases to track and value this material comprehensively will be built ex-post facto because so little is known about the material up front. This means that for the current generation, if one develops expert knowledge, one can enjoy an absolute advantage for perhaps as much as a generation and in that time develop a superb, low cost collection. Personal knowledge will be essential because the volume of this material will eventually dwarf books, probably in time by more than a hundred, possibly even a thousand times.
Ephemera, as appealing as it is, it not going to be the exclusive beneficiary of digitization and the building of databases to record its history. Simultaneously, every distinct collecting category is being subsumed into a single unified search. This means that books, ephemera, manuscripts, maps, paintings, objects, art other than paintings such as photography as well as an amorphous other [categories yet to be named] are already merging into unified searches that potentially transform collecting from its current category basis into one based on subject. Such collecting is potentially of enormous personal significance as it permits collectors to collect both specifically and invariably narrowly because even narrow fields will see constant opportunities for purchase. Such collections will be stunningly unique. Whether they are eventually embraced by future generations will be known only in the years ahead but they aren’t going to be terribly expensive to build. Neither have the great collectors ever been guaranteed financial success. Such collectors did achieve something greater though, enduring recognition for their prescience.
What is certain today is that opportunities to collect are absolutely unique and if history is any guide the best collections will be built early.
I know this first hand as I have been acquiring online material related to the Hudson Valley in the State of New York for most of the past ten years. I had no theory or expectations and simply tried various methods for discovery and employed them on most of the available online sites. As software was needed we created it for AE members and I employed it myself. A decade in I can say that the unexpected comes up every day and that much of it is ephemera, material that is unpredictable and endlessly fascinating. At this point I have about 2,700 items of which about a fifth are books, both numbers that ten years ago I would have thought impossible.