I have never worked in a library before. Been in one, yes. Studied in one, definitely. Worked in one that holds invaluable documents and rare artifacts, that’d be a resounding no. Until now.
If you had told me at the beginning of summer that my first project as a student assistant in Special Collections and University Archives would have me surrounded by boxes upon boxes of postcards, I would have laughed and asked, “What’s a postcard?”
I’m kidding — of course I know what a postcard is: a postcard is to the 19th and 20th century what Instagram is to the 21st century. Perhaps a bit of a stretch but it kind of makes you think, doesn’t it?
During the late 19th century and well into the 20th century, postcards were instrumental when staying in touch with loved ones. Traveling for vacation purposes had a popularity boom in American culture and with that came the desire to share their travels with family and friends back home. Whether travelers visited resorts, amusement parks, popular cities, or another country, they were eager to capture memories of their vacation. With a distinguishing photograph on the front and an empty space on the back for a brief message, the creation of the postcard allowed travelers to do just that.
The amount of postcards preserved in Special Collections is astonishing considering how old some of them are. These postcards come from all over the world and in various shapes and sizes. Some postcards even had messages still written on the back alongside the recipient’s name and address with a postmark date. Some of these messages were brief, others were lengthy, and some messages were hastily scrawled across the back that it was practically illegible. Questionable penmanship aside, these messages conjured up a charming vision into the lives of both the traveler and the recipient. I looked forward to seeing any kind of message scribbled on the back and was quite disappointed if there wasn’t one.
However, like so many fashionable trends fall victim to, the postcard’s popularity began to dwindle as the world moved deeper into the 20th century and advanced into the 21st century with new forms of communication rendering the postcard nearly obsolete. Nevertheless, postcards can still be found at many travel destinations and some visitors have taken to collecting them for their own interest.
When I started this project, I went through about five boxes of postcards from California and one box of postcards from different countries for our summer vacation screens in the Hornbake Library lobby. I probably came across over 100 postcards just from those six boxes alone, which didn’t even make a dent in the thousands of other postcards tucked away in our collection. It is massively impressive.
Going through each box was like opening a small window into the past. Some postcards were older than others, resulting in wear and tear conditions where they could fall apart at any given minute. Some postcards remained untouched, appearing brand new, with no messages written on the back and no postal marks of any kind. Each postcard had a photo on the front that was distinctive and provided an insight to the year or location in which it was created. Some postcards even had a short description of the photo printed on the back.
My favorite postcards that I came across during my search were definitely the postcard booklets. I was particularly fond of the booklets that had a chain of different postcards from one location that would cascade down when the recipient opened it. Other booklets were extremely small and held equally small photographs of the location the sender visited. There weren’t too many of these type of postcards in the boxes I scanned through, as most were of the singular variety, so it was always a pleasant surprise when I did manage to stumble across a few. I’m sure, however, that if I were to look through more boxes of postcards I would inevitably find more booklets.
This was a fun project to start off with during my first few weeks in Special Collections. It gave me the opportunity to see what kind of material I would be working with. I’m excited to see what other hidden gems are behind these archival walls.
Elena Macias is a Special Collections and University Archives student assistant in Instruction and Outreach where she assists in various design and social media projects. She is pursuing a Masters in Journalism.