A Scrapbook? An Altered Book? A Work Book? Outsider Art? Something Else?

One trait that unites book people (bibliographers, typographers, librarians, book conservators, graphic designers, collectors, book historians, printers, booksellers, curators, papermakers, bookbinders, etc…) is an emphasis on using an accurate terminology when describing aspects of the material book. The problem is that these sects have developed their own distinct usage, which sometimes overlap, and sometimes don’t. For example, the term “text block” means something entirely different to bookbinders and printers.

Booksellers and bibliographers often refer to Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors. Conservators are largely adopting the Language of Bindings from Ligatus, which is supposed to be available as a book from Oak Knoll soon. Binders usually use the lingo of the workshop where they learned the craft from. Printed resources include Etherington’s Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books and Glaister’s Encyclopedia of the Book.

Most of us learn our terminology haphazardly. Considered historically, prescriptive attempts at linguistic change often fail, even if what they propose is more rational or accurate. Given improvements in text searching, and the ease of taking and disseminating digital images, I wonder if the need to use a strict terminology is as important as it once was.

Top Edge. B.F. Tefft, Webster and his Master-Pieces. Auburn and Buffalo: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1854. My Collection.

That said, I recently purchased a book that does not fit neatly into any existing descriptive framework that I’m familiar with. The distortions on the top edge of the book caught my attention when I looked at it in the store. Then I noticed the extremely crude backing, making it a useful “how-not-to” example when teaching. Many sections have two reverse folds! Then again, these reverse folds may have helped lock the sections into place, given the typical detaching of the spine linings: note the pages are not falling out at the foreedge. The binding itself is in good shape considering wear, even with an additional quarter inch or so of added material. The case binding structure is quite adaptable to different text block thicknesses.

But the real reason I bought it was for the neatly glued in newspaper clippings of quilt patterns on the first twenty-four consecutive recto leaves. As in the example below, they typically completely cover the entire text block. The high quality of the text paper has helped buffer the newsprint, preserving it, though at the expense of the host: note the extensive staining on page 92, again quite typical.


Typical layout of four patterns per page. B.F. Tefft, Webster and his Master-Pieces. Auburn and Buffalo: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1854. My Collection.

It is not unusual for books to become repositories for all sorts of things: plants, leaves, receipts, scribbled notations, and the occasional hair-on mouse skin. I’m guessing the quilt patterns were added in the early 20th century. The additions cover and obscure the original text.

What to call it?  Gary Frost, I think, would consider this in his broad rubric as an “intervention”. While it is certainly an altered book, I don’t think it has the artistic connotation that the phrase usually implies.  It is not really a commonplace book, or an artist’s book. It is not extra-illustrated. It is more than a scrapbook, since the additions change the original book into something else.

Originally the book was about Daniel Webster, who created the first American dictionary, and a dictionary documents the recorded usage of words. This particular copy was altered in a way that obliterates the text in order to become a reference for quilting. Even through there is some text on the quilting patterns, images dominate. Likely unintentionally, this book is a physical manifestation of the conflict between text and craft, the book learning verses practical activities, the head and the hand. How are books used? More than reading, it seems.


While rereading this post, and looking through the book again, I noticed at least 22 pages near the end with pressed plants. Most seem to be intentionally arranged, resembling marginalia. or in this case the title page of the Doves Bible. Hmmm.

One of over 22 pressed plants. B.F. Tefft, Webster and his Master-Pieces. Auburn and Buffalo: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1854. My Collection.

4 Replies to “A Scrapbook? An Altered Book? A Work Book? Outsider Art? Something Else?”

  1. How would the person who made it describe it? Probably as a scrapbook.

    Quite a few years ago I heard a talk by someone who did her dissertation on a mysterious object, a book altered by having paste-ins and overpainted pages and drawings until nothing of the (original) book could be seen. Nothing to indicate original date of book (probably pasted over, of no interest to her anyway), nothing to indicate who or why it was altered. It is one of the greatest treasures of a private museum of artists books or book art in, if I remember correctly, Florida. The couple who formed the collection knew it was a treasure because it was sold to them, for an enormous price, by a rare book dealer who specializes in book art.

    When I heard an excellent (it really was excellent) talk on the object, quite a few years ago, great emphasis was placed on the complete mystery of the book’s date and place. Hmmm….I could see three or four promising ways to put limits, at least, on the date, based on typography and paper and descriptive bibliography in general. But the speaker didn’t want to hear them. She was enamored, you see, with the mystery of what might be the work of a folk artist of genius.

    Maybe she is right. But to me it was just an old scrapbook, a very nice one, but nothing earth shaking. Probably made by a ten-year-old with some talent for colour on a years’ worth of rainy days, back in the 1880s, on a small farm in the midwest. A place where a book wouldn’t be thrown out because nothing was thrown out, but where it would have no value to a grown-up. Or maybe in during the Depression, where you used what you had. A way for a destructive brat to work out his or her energy and malice without injuring anything that mattered, like the farm equipment or the linen tablecloths. There are always people whose greatest joy is in breaking things that others have made. Me, I don’t think we should encourage them.

    But I have one rock to grope for in the quicksand of my prejudice and ignorance: What did the maker think he or she was doing? How would he or she describe it? Perhaps this can’t be determined with certainty, but it is the direction in which to start the search for rational confrontation.

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