Most of us have had the experience of finding a small leaflet of political advertising or propaganda in the mailbox. A common response is to read its contents and then dispose of it. However, leaflets like these are also their own little slice of history, capturing moments in time that could be lost forever unless they are preserved for posterity.

This is where the Riley and Political Ephemera Collection enters the picture, as a wide-ranging and living collection that captures political life in Victoria through the medium of ephemera.

Red map of Australia with 'U.S. bases out' written over the map. Background is repeating text 'pine gap nurungar north west cape'.
U S bases out. From Riley & Ephemera poster collection. This work is in copyright

The word ‘ephemera’ is defined by Oxford Reference as:

things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time; items of collectable memorabilia, typically written or printed ones, that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity.

The Riley Collection is made up of leaflets, pamphlets, posters, flyers, handbills, and badges advertising events, disseminating information, and alerting the public about various subjects including (but in no way limited to): 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rightsAbortion Anti-conscription movements (WWI and Vietnam)
Anti-nuclear movements Anti-war movements Civil rights
Environmental conservation Human rights Immigration
Indigenous rights and self-determination Land rights LGBTQIA+ rights
New Age and fringe religions Political campaigning and electioneering Protest movements
RacismTrade unionism Women’s rights

… and the list goes on!

Nuclear War – Not A Teddy Bears Picnic. From Riley & Ephemera poster collection. This work is in copyright

The collection initially came into being thanks to ongoing donations from Frederick John Riley (1886-1970).

Fred Riley was a politician and trade unionist, initially involved in South Australian and Victorian socialist groups, and then later, in the Australian Labor Party (serving as Victorian branch president between 1941-42). He was involved in negotiating a settlement of the 1919 Melbourne waterfront strike. He was secretary of the Manufacturing Grocers’ Employees Federation of Australia, and from 1939 through to 1954, he was a member of the Victorian Advisory Committee on Price Fixing and its later incarnation, the Victorian Prices Decontrol Advisory Committee.

He stood unsuccessfully for Parliament in NSW, Victoria, and the Commonwealth four times between 1913 and 1955. He died in 1970, having actively donated material to the State Library of Victoria between 1956-1969.

PIcture of man in suit wearing glasses on right hand side of picture. Text reads: 'Melbourne North Province F. J. Riley endorsed Labor candidate Election Day: Saturday, June 18th, 1955.
Fred Riley stood for the Victorian State Parliament in 1955. From Riley & Ephemera collection

Riley’s collection reveals his strong interest in Australian labour history. He was dedicated to collecting material about industrial and labour union history in Australia. He collected material from the early days of the ALP and the WWI anti-conscription movement, in which he was heavily involved, as well as contemporary items of printed ephemera related to trade unionism and associated subjects.

Since his death, the collection has expanded to include greater coverage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues including land rights, healthcare, political activity, civil rights, and self-determination, as well as mining activism, student activism, feminism, community radio, and handbills and leaflets printed by the Walker Press for many political and community groups in Melbourne between 1973 and 1983. There is also a large amount of posters, many of which have been digitised, and realia such as badges, hats and t-shirts in the collection as well.

Image shows from left to right woman seated at computer, woman standing holding laundry, man with floor cleaning machine, woman with mop and bucket, woman holding tray of food. Main text reads: 'Hospital employees federation Victorian No. 1 Branch"
Hospital Employees Federation, Victorian No. 1 Branch. From Riley & Ephemera poster collection. This work is in copyright

Much of this material provides alternative viewpoints on events like strikes, protests, and other forms of activism, and as such can highlight the bias of mainstream media reporting. Topics that can generate large amounts of heated debate such as abortion and conscription are represented in their full spectrum of viewpoints.

What this collection demonstrates is how particular political and social issues can quickly generate huge amounts of content, such as leaflets advertising protest movements. In many cases, had these items not been deposited in the collection, there would be no record of them at all.  This makes the Riley and Ephemera Collection a unique and valuable resource of contemporary and historical material.

With social media becoming a preferred medium for 21st century political advocacy and activism, political and social groups are distributing fewer physical copies of the kinds of material included in the Riley Collection.

Image shows rat with face of woman. Main text reads: Rally against Thatcher.
Rally against Thatcher. From Riley & Ephemera collection

If you are in possession of material that would be suitable for the Riley Collection, please get in touch with us! We’d love to receive political brochures, election pamphlets, how-to-vote cards, and candidate posters to add to the collection – from forthcoming or past elections, or anything more broadly related to political and social justice issues within Victoria.

It’s easy – just pop your political ephemera in an envelope and address it to:

Riley & Ephemera Collection

State Library Victoria
328 Swanston Street

Reply Paid 69565
Melbourne VIC 3000

Image shows stylised figure with head in meat grinder. Main text reads 'just say no to censorship or you may just be silenced forever...'
Just say no to censorship. From Riley & Ephemera poster collection. This work is in copyright


Bongiorno, Frank, 2006, Frederick John RileyAustralian Dictionary of Biography, viewed 8 April 2022

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