In theory, it's the time of year when holiday postcards start arriving from friends and relations, but with each new year these seem to grow more infrequent. Email and social media have pretty much replaced that pleasant and venerable custom. Not surprisingly -- an old friend is currently travelling in South East Asia, and his blog and Facebook posts are considerably more current, informative and entertaining than any dog-eared, hastily-scribbled bit of card could be that has survived weeks, sometimes months, of travel through the world's postal services. What's more -- given the difficulty of getting a decent phone signal or internet connection in not-so-far-flung places like Bristol, and the impossibility of getting any at all in mid-Wales -- I am amazed to discover that buses in Vietnam have free wifi.
St. Catherine's Hill and St. Cross,
But I do still like the postcard as an object, and hope that they will continue to exist as a cheap, portable souvenir, even when so few of them now get inscribed, stamped, and entrusted to the mail. In the age of the smartphone and the selfie, though, this really can't be taken for granted; if no-one buys them, no-one will make them. Yet another good reason to ban all photography in museums and art galleries... What would really seal the postcard's fate, I suspect, is if souvenir shops started offering an instant upload of an image from your phone to produce a real, personalised postcard, delivered anywhere in the world, in a street-level version of a service like Touchnote. Perhaps they already do in Vietnam.
Artist Tom Phillips has had a long fascination with the photographic postcard, and has amassed a unique collection which he donated to the Bodleian Library a few years ago. This was generous and public-spirited, but as an ex-cataloguer my heart sinks when I contemplate the scale of the task that will have landed on someone's desk. Library directors love quirky and munificent gifts; library staff dread them. They've clearly been getting on with it, however, and Tom and the Bodleian have already published various themed selections from this card cornucopia. To get a free taste you can see a regular selection on a Twitter feed called "We Were The People" (you don't need to have signed up for Twitter to see them).