Rack Cards, Pokémon, and a Student Project

In August 2014, the Department of Archives and Special Collections received a large postcard donation, consisting of 4,344 advertisement cards from the 1990s and early 2000s. With contemporary topics of social history and technology, this exciting donation filled a gap in our postcard collections. These advertisement cards – aka rack cards – are valuable artifacts and visual resources, representing technological changes and social issues at the turn of the Millennium, such as the rise of the Internet, the dot-com boom, environmentalism, and public health. Once freely circulated as part of marketing campaigns, these postcards also offer insights into popular culture, branding, marketing strategies and visual appeal.

This postcard donation provided excellent opportunities for our library student assistants to gain hands-on experience with processing a substantial and interesting postcard collection. With direction from the Curator of Postcards, Rachel Wen-Paloutzian, a number of student assistants contributed to the initial sorting of the postcards.

Shin Eui Park – a graduating senior student – became the student project leader and participated in the process of organizing and making the postcards accessible to the public. Here Shin Eui answers a few questions about her experience of working on this project.

Shin Eui Park

What did you find interesting about this postcard project?

Technically, I am what people call a “90s kid.” To be honest, however, I really do not remember anything about the 90s since I was only a toddler throughout majority of those years. Also, up until year 2000, I lived in South Korea, which had a completely different “90s culture” from America. The postcards I worked with for this project are advertisements from the 90s and early 2000s. The majority of them are from America, albeit some from Europe. These advertisement postcards are known as “rack cards,” since these postcards were literally stacked and piled on racks in businesses and venues free for anyone to grab.

The existence of rack cards is an interesting aspect of 90s culture. It felt relevant to my current studies here at Loyola Marymount University since I am a business marketing major. I was able to get the rack card experience of 90s culture from a marketing angle unique to that decade. What made rack cards effective? What made them ineffective? Did they reach their target audiences? What made some rack cards more noticeable than others? These were the questions I often pondered while working with these cards. Exploring these questions was interesting for me.

PokemonAnother interesting point about this project was seeing what sort of products and businesses from the past are still prevalent today. If they are still currently relevant, then seeing how much they have evolved is fascinating. For example, I have been a big fan of Pokémon ever since I was young. Because Pokémon was created the same year I was born, I literally grew up with the shows, games and toys. Of course, there were a couple Pokémon postcards I spotted and I got nostalgic. The postcards advertise the release of the second generation of the Pokémon game, while Pokémon is now on their sixth generation. The Pokémon Company developed and became a cultural phenomenon over the past twenty years, and it was fun to take a look back to their early roots.

What were some of the challenges you encountered?

There actually were not that many challenges that came along with this project. The only one I can think of is the large volume of postcards that I was dealing with. There were four oversized long boxes, each filled with over 1,000 postcards, so it took me a while to sort and file all of them. Rachel, Special Collections and Metadata Librarian in the Archives and Special Collections Department and my supervisor for this project, told me that these postcards were only a portion of what the donor has collected. Rachel also said prior to this donation, our department did not have many postcards on popular culture of the 90s and 2000s. I am glad to see that the librarians in our department try their best to expand our special collections in these genres. All in all, I think there were more benefits than difficulties that came out of this project for me, and I am proud to say that the only real challenge I had was simply the large quantity of postcards.

What did you learn from this project?

SnappleAdThe Department of Archives and Special Collections has over one million postcards and holds one of the largest publicly accessible postcard collections in the United States. In the past two years, I helped with the sorting of many postcards, but this was the first time I worked on the entire process of organizing a postcard collection, from the accession of these rack cards after they were donated, to the creation of new subject categories for the postcard inventory, to the physical arrangement and re-housing of these postcards in archival boxes. Through this lengthy process, I got a better grasp of the categorization and organization of the postcard collection in this department, and whenever I had a problem, Rachel was more than happy to help and guide me along the way.

Another thing I learned is the very existence of these rack cards. I did not know about this postcard genre until I was assigned to this project! It was super interesting to see how companies marketed their products and services in the 90s and early 2000s, and how marketing has changed since then with the rise of digital technology to meet consumers.