Ephemera Hunting: 5 Top Tips

Paper is a book artist’s main medium, so I’m always looking for new materials to work with. Getting inspired by all the places I visit means that, when travelling, I make a habit to search out ephemera whenever possible. Do you do the same? I’ve been working as a book artist and teacher for twenty years, and taking students on ephemera hunts is one of my favourite pastimes. Here are my top five spots to find unusual, unique and affordable paper supplies. Please add your favourite places in the comments.

If you’re joining us for this year’s PaperLove e-course, starting on 17 June, now’s the time to gather up some interesting materials.

Second-hand bookshops

By definition, second-hand bookshops are the best places to look for interesting paper. If you’re ephemera hunting, please don’t enter the hallowed halls of an antiquarian bookseller looking for precious books to cut up. Instead, seek out shops where volumes are piled high, overflowing every surface, with only the haziest attempt at categorization. One such place is Brattle Book Shop in Boston, Massachusetts, which has open-air stalls and clearly marked prices on each stack—some books are as low as one dollar. Yes, please! Once you have filled your arms, there is floor upon floor of heaving shelves to peruse in the shop itself.

Perhaps you’ve found a shop with a box jammed with poor hardbacks with their covers hanging off. Don’t show your excitement at the potential of these ragged pages. Control your breathing and casually inquire, “How much to take these off your hands?”

You’ll find all sorts of papers to re-purpose. These heart shapes have been cut from old books and sailing charts. A dictionary has been ripped apart and is awaiting embellishment.

Lovely drawings like these, which come from a vintage encyclopedia, are perfect for illustrating your own story

Charity shops

The second most obvious place to find an eclectic variety of well-priced materials is the charity shop (thrift store). Acquaint yourself with your local establishment and swing by regularly to assess any new stock. I go straight to the map section, looking for cloth-backed country maps and hard-back atlases, or even a spiral-bound road map. Then the manuscript shelf lures me with the promise of operettas with dramatic arpeggios or happy show tunes. And finally, I’ll see if there are any pocket dictionaries going for cheap. It’s very satisfying to know that your purchases will benefit others while you’re expanding your specialist supplies.

This was an especially good charity shop haul of books that yielded lots of ephemera.


Combining tiny fragments, such as book text and map scraps, create an interesting narrative for a handmade book – a little goes a long way.

Paint store

A quick, quiet heads up on the paint chip colour chart! Please exercise discretion and restraint for this recommendation, and apologies in advance to paint manufacturers everywhere.

If you’re attracted to the order and repetition of bookbinding, the pleasing arrangement of graded tones on a color chart is going to be instantly attractive. Many paint retailers offer swatches of their range on strips of paper that you can take home to match your current project. Some companies give away samples presented in an accordion fold brochure, and describe each color so poetically that you cannot help but be inspired to make something!

Let paint color chart samples inspire your next creation.

Libraries

We all know that libraries are places to go for borrowing books, not appropriating them for artistic purposes. However, it’s not often mentioned that these institutions need to cull great numbers of books every year to make way for new collections. So how about making friends with a librarian and finding out what happens to these books, and whether you could acquire some in return for a donation? Some libraries also hold book sales, so check with ones in your area.

This juicy red selection came from The National Library of Scotland, which created a Christmas tree-shaped pile of unwanted books and let eager booklovers take a few away. An incredible amount of books get pulped: Do your duty and upcycle them

Flea markets

Saving the best for last! Flea markets are a cornucopia of possibility for the book artist. Stalls heave with a diverse range of old and new books, from vintage instruction manuals and leather-bound biographies to contemporary guidebooks and shiny art monographs. Keep an eye out for these papery items: cartoons, knitting patterns, house plans—anything with good texture and fonts. Be prepared to rummage in dusty boxes. Every price can be negotiated, with smiles to help the transaction go smoothly.

Visiting a stamp and paper market is the highlight of my annual Love Letters book art workshop in Paris. Postage stamps are wonderful bits of ephemera that can add style, colour, and meaning to your work.

Old photographs evoke nostalgia for past times. Each of these sepia portraits is the perfect starting point for developing a narrative. We don’t know these faces, so we can invent whole stories about where these characters lived and whom they loved.

Sepia photographs are easy to find at flea markets, and can be used in so many ways.

As part of my Paper Love e-course, I encourage my students to send mail art to each other all around the world. A personal message on a beautiful postcard is such a lovely gift to give. Sending holiday cards is an old-fashioned tradition that makes me happy to continue it. Imagine all the cards that have been sent around the world!

Old postcards evoke adventure, nostalgia, and can be used for mail art.
Fortunately for us, flea markets generally have at least one stand packed with rows and rows of postcards. If you’re lucky, they may have been sorted according to type, so you can flip through particular collections of bird’s nests or mountain scenes. Other stalls may have some scattered among bundles and piles, waiting for you to pick them out. Successful acquisitions rely on eagle eyes, patience, the determination to dig deep—and taking frequent café stops. Good luck!

Join me and other ephemera hunters on the next PaperLove e-course, starting 17th June, for more insights and inspiration in the wonderful world of paper and bookart.

2 thoughts on “Ephemera Hunting: 5 Top Tips

  1. This is interesting thank you. Another good source is friends and family, I regularly get a fashion magazine, a photographic magazine and some Sunday colour supplements, additionally I have a friend who is a print maker and sends me the ones not passing her stringent quality control. I also keep every ticket stub, programme, advertising leaflet etc that I just accumulate in my normal life.

    1. Thanks Heather! Oh yes – how true! – hurray for friends and family who put aside ephemera (and keep their dud prints) for us! You sound like a true PaperLover – happy accumulating

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