Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Scrapping History

Over the past few decades, archivists and other records professionals have mostly seen the digital world as their greatest challenge. However, it is safe to say that other documentary forms have produced considerable consternation as well. Susan Tucker, Katherine Ott, and Patricia P. Buckler, in the introduction to their edited compilation The Scrapbook in American Life (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006), identify scrapbooks as one of these forms: “Most scrapbooks and their ephemeral content do not last and provide only a fleeting usefulness. They disintegrate and crumble. The leaves fall out. The enclosures drop off the page. Archivists, the most conscientious embalmers of primary materials, tend to neglect them because they are conservation nightmares. None of the solutions available will correct all the problems. Sometimes an archivist must destroy a scrapbook – take it apart – to save it” (p. 18). Every archivist reading this assessment has probably experienced the dilemma of trying to save a scrapbook and its contents.

The Scrapbook in American Life is a remarkably useful set of readings about this documentary genre. The various essays cover scrapbooks being maintained by medical practitioners, women overseeing plantations, individuals visiting significant cultural events such as the Columbian Exposition, trade card collecting, paper doll collecting, photographic albums, African-American memory books, and scrapbooks maintained by various elements of society (such as children and prostitutes). Scrapbooks are described for their various personal and cultural uses, such as storing official records, codifying normal routines, organizing household knowledge, building personalized narratives, assembling souvenirs, ordering relationships, creating private worlds, developing memory prompts, and providing an outlet for artistic expression. This is also a multi-disciplinary perspective on scrapbooks, with essays by art historians, English professors, museum curators, a librarian, photographic curators, archivists, and rare books and special collections specialists. Given the effort by a number of the authors to argue that it was not just women who maintained scrapbooks, it is a bit amusing to note that of the fifteen authors in this volume only one is a man (and I wonder why no one commented on the fact that mostly women scholars, at least for this volume, seem to be drawn to this topic).

As depicted in this volume, and certainly well known for all archivists, librarians, and curators of various stripes who have faced these documents, scrapbooks are complicated sources. Tucker, Ott, and Buckler describe them as “partial, coded accounts”: “Scrapbooks contain abundant hieroglyphics for the researchers who can decipher them, yet their often-enigmatic contents can stymie even the most patient scholar” (p. 3). The reasons for their complexity are many. They are, after all, a representation of the “construction of identity”: “It is the self that guides the scissors and assembles the scraps” (p. 2). Scrapbooks are the “material manifestation of memory,” and, as such, they are influenced by trends in collecting, changes in display and exhibitions, the evolution of printing and publishing, and the emergence of photography (p. 3). Scrapbooks “resemble the junk drawer found in kitchens and desks” (p. 12). And, “scrapbooks exhibit a complicated verbal, material, and visual chronicle of changing U.S. society, yet the story each album tells is chaotic and ambiguous” (p. 25). It is because of such characteristics as these, of course, that scrapbooks represent not just preservation challenges but descriptive puzzles for archivists and others who must catalog them.

Scrapbooks pose interesting problems for both those who care for them and those who might try to use them. Jennifer A. Jolly, in her examination of a Columbian Exposition scrapbook, provides an insight into this: “The study of scrapbooks can lead historians to become extremely self-conscious about the process of making of history, their motivations for writing history, and the forms their history might take to allow for both the fluid presentation of facts and the assertion of their individual interpretation” (p. 96). Given the participation of archivists and other closely-related professionals in this volume, one might wonder if we might not be seeing the emergence of a more substantial scholarship by such professionals in the variety of documenting forms that challenge them. In any event, this is an important and stimulating book for those who work in such repositories. Anyone who reads it will never look at a scrapbook in quite the same way again.