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.

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.




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