The Most Endangered Book Species

Jessica Helfand was interviewed on the Leonard Lopate show , WNYC. She recently wrote, “Scrapbooks: An American History”  An art critic and graphic designer, she investigates scrapbooks through the lenses of social history, graphic design, folk art, personal narrative and assemblage.  She explores the  public/ private nature of scrapbooks as well as the big questions– why are scrapbooks so important to their maker, how do these “countless pieces of ephemera … collectively frame a life?” (xvi) In the 19th C. men as well as women were avid  scrapbookers and in  1873, Mark Twain patented a “self-pasting” scrapbook (#140,245) that became very popular and profitable since it dispensed with the need for glue.  Helfand’s book includes many gorgeous photos of scrapbooks from famous and unknown people, presented straightforwardly in all their acid burned glory.   It is also an impressive example of bookmaking– many of the images of scrapbook pages are laid out on the recto and verso pages, requiring very careful registration when printing and binding. The blurb reads:

“Combining pictures, words, and a wealth of personal ephemera, scrapbook makers preserve on the pages of their books a moment, a day, or a lifetime. Highly subjective and rich in emotional content, the scrapbook is a unique and often quirky form of expression in which a person gathers and arranges meaningful materials to create a personal narrative. This lavishly illustrated book is the first to focus attention on the history of American scrapbooks—their origins, their makers, their diverse forms, the reasons for their popularity, and their place in American culture.”

Scrapbooks are perhaps the most endangered of all book species.  Even today, they are routinely dismantled, mainly because of the serious challenges for conservators (and the costs that these entail) because of the wide variety of media, adhesives and ephemera contained in them.  This book will help conservators convince clients of the importance of preserving scrapbooks in their entirety, that they are more than the individual items contained within them.  It is precisely because of the wide variety of materials that scrapbooks contain that give us a unique insight into the mind and time period of the maker. Vernacular culture rules!

She relates the scrapbook to current digital technologies, “The scrapbook was the original open-source technology, a unique form of self expression that celebrated visual sampling, culture mixing, and the appropriation and redistribution of existing media.” (xvii)  and is exploring the idea in a blog post called “Facebook:  The Global Scrapbook”  Her insightful, critical blog post about the current scrapbooking movement, is well worth reading, as well as the comments, some of which verge on the hostile.

Below are two images from the book.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: