Thursday, October 2, 2008


Every local historical society has them. There they sit, the wrong size to fit in a box or on a shelf, sometimes filled with crumbling pages of obituaries. Luckily, Jessica Helfand has written a new book and has a new blog, both called the Daily Scrapbook that encourages new ways of thinking about these oft-ignored parts of our collection. A graphic designer and scrapbook collector, she's produced an amazing look at history. As the website describes it:

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, rich in emotional meaning, 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 richly illustrated book is the first to focus close 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.

I think the idea of narrative is what's really important here. In museum terms, these scrapbooks are ways of personal meaning-making, the ways in which we assemble our experiences into something greater than the parts.

So let's go back and look at some of those scrapbooks. I remember some beautiful and memorable ones that I've come across: a little book full of tatting patterns and instructions; a travel scrapbook evocative of a type of travel now long gone; a small volume with tenderly pressed plants from places visited on the Grand Tour. The not-as-beautiful but still memorable are those that have carefully pasted- down materials about the larger issues of a particular place and time: the scrapbook full of clippings about the destruction of communities in the building of New York City's reservoirs or the one about the unionization of carpet mills in Amsterdam, NY with its clippings and mimeographed meeting notices. And then of course, there are just those photo albums/scrapbook hybrids that just sort of perfectly capture a summer.

What should we museums do about all our scrapbooks? Sure, maybe an exhibit on them, but maybe we should look at them as tools to learn about constructing a narrative and telling a story. Perhaps we can learn about flow, about words and images together, about humor, and about a compelling connection with people.

Top to bottom:
Family album, Sayre Historical Society


Anne W. Ackerson said...


Thanks for helping us think beyond the physical challenges of the scrapbook. They are indeed personal narratives!

We're in a period where "scrapbooking" is an extremely popular hobby. Whole aisles filled with materials for the creation of these 2- and 3-dimensional personal narratives can be found in most arts and crafts stores.

When I go on vacation I've taken to keeping a travel journal, complete with pictures, drawings, and flat little souvenirs like receipts, napkins and the like.

With all this scrapbooking activity going on, I suspect that history museums and archives will be faced with the delicious dilemmas of scrapbooks for decades to come.

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