Ephemera in Rare Books

Nowadays, when someone leaves something in a book, it is usually in the form of a bookmark or something that can be used to mark a page. Often librarians find unconventional items left in books or used as bookmarks; items such as tissues, q-tips, and receipts just to name a few. These little scraps left in books can sometimes provide clues about the person who used a book last.

This can get even more interesting when these items are left by someone from the past. While going through our rare book collection, we have found many interesting items left behind in books.

While items left in books do not have a specific term, the closest term to use would probably be ephemera. Maurice Rickards, who wrote the Encyclopedia of Ephemera, defines the term as “the minor transient documents of everyday life”. These documents tend to be either printed or handwritten. Most of the items that we have found in our rare books fit this description, though we have expanded this definition for our purposes to also include other transient items such as dried flowers. Below we have collected some of the more interesting ephemera we have found in our rare books so far:

Letters: Letters can provide insight into why a particular book might have been added to someone’s book collection. A good example of this is a letter written to William Renwick Riddell from Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the 7th Prime Minister of Canada. It is obvious that Wilfrid Laurier and William Riddell exchanged letters before this particular one, which mentions donating the book “Statement concerning Red River Settlement” to which this letter is attached.

Wilfrid Letter

Notes: We have found a variety of notes in many of our rare books, both handwritten and typed, but the note below has to be our favourite. We aren’t quite sure whether this note is a poem or perhaps a grocery list. It’s up to you to decide.

Handwritten note

Newspaper Clippings: Newspaper tends to be flimsy even when first printed, so it is no surprise that it becomes quite brittle as it ages. This makes it hard to preserve, though we do have some good examples from the early 20th century in a book written by Mr. Riddell titled The Legal Profession in Upper Canada, published in 1916. This volume is actually filled with various ephemera, from handwritten notes to typed letters and newspaper clippings.

Newspaper Clippings

Dried Flowers: Occasionally, what you find in books might not be something that was ever meant to be left there. The dried flowers found in an 1815 book is a good example of this. While the book was used to flatten and dry the flowers, presumably it was the owner’s intention to remove them at some point. These flowers were also in the same book where the “poem” was found.

Dried Flowers 2

Advertisements: Ads are usually tailored towards a certain population in a specific time period, so it is definitely interesting when ads from the late 1800s survive to this day. It tells us something about everyday life during that period of time. The ad shown below is from The Ontario Law Directory for 1880 and is an example of an advertisement that you wouldn’t see in 2020.


There are many more examples of ephemera inserted into our rare books, these are just a selection of those that we found the most interesting.

So the next time you come across a piece of paper left in a book, take the time to wonder why the document was left there in the first place.