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.




Window Dressing

This is not an image of water damage, an art project or a disaster recovery workshop.  Instead, it is the current window dressing of the Anthropologie store located at 5th Ave. and 16th St. in New York City.  At least a couple of thousand books appear to have been opened 180 degrees, wetted, then rolled into these large cylinders, as if the books were returning to the trees from which they came.  This display could be interpreted as an incisive a comment on the relationship between advertising and narrative structure– even a non-functioning narrative (the destroyed book) is powerful enough to be co-opted by advertising. Maybe this display is a political statement on the torturing of physical objects, denying them of their own meaning, forcing them to deliver another message, in this case to sell items in the store. Most likely, however, the relationship between this display and the overpriced crap luxury consumer goods that this store retails wasn’t even considered.

I’m always a bit uneasy when I see books that have been mutilated, whether it is done in the name of art, censorship, vandalism, or commerce.  I would have given no pause to this window if it were filled with broken laptop computers or ebook readers, which indicates some fundamental differences between our relationship to virtual and “real” books.  It is a sign that book arts have entered the mainstream when designers adopt their techniques– part of the filtering of ideas from “high” art to popular culture.  I noticed  Brooklyn Public Library and Appleton Public Library (Wisconsin) stamps on some of the tail edges, but all libraries have to deaccession books. Is it better to do a surreptitious run to the landfill or recycling center, or should they “live a second life” as some might argue this display illustrates? 

Many librarians subscribe to the broken windows theory — books that are poorly shelved and messy tend to encourage more disorder and damage.  And many conservators bemoan the thoughtless handling that many patrons (and sometimes curators!) display when handling a fragile, rare book with the careless aplomb more commonly observed at telephone booths–holding the telephone book precariously in one hand while inserting the change and dialing with the other, for example.  

Although this display sets a horrifying example about how books can be handled and stored, what concerns me more is that it represents an insidious cultural trend — specifically a disregard for the physical substrates used to transmit and store information, and generally a de-privileging  (perhaps denial?) of human interaction with the physical world.

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