Each Wednesday, I write a post from my dissertation.
In popular culture, scrapbooks are described as “essentially a photograph album with decorations” (Anonymous 2007:73). My respondents would probably agree with this assessment, but would also be quick to point out that these photograph albums with decorations preserve memories and tell stories. In other words, popular culture reduces scrapbooks to its superficial elements instead of promoting an understanding of the context in which these decorations reside.
For the most part, scrapbookers know a scrapbook when they see it, though as will be clear by the end of this chapter, what counts as a scrapbook is quite broad. Most respondents understand scrapbooks as permanent collections of memories, stories, photographs, and memorabilia. Some contain more of these items than others. Moreover, most scrapbooks are about the scrapbooker. They are autobiographies.
Scholars who choose scrapbooks as a source of analysis must decide from the beginning how they are going to define a scrapbook because there is tremendous variation. In this study, I rely on self-definition. If a respondent says they are a scrapbooker and what they showed me is a scrapbook, then they are a scrapbooker and it is a scrapbook. Nearly all of my respondents scrapbook in the conventional sense shaped by the scrapbooking industry, but there are notable exceptions. Other scholars are more restrictive in their selection of scrapbooks to study. For example, in Jessica Helfand’s (2008:x) compilation of “beautiful” scrapbooks, she excludes those “scrapbooks consisting solely of photographs or merely of clippings” because “they lacked the formal complexity that [she] believed would most convincingly represent a person and the moment in which that individual lived.”
My respondents are better able to explain what scrapbooks are not rather than what scrapbooks are. For example, someone says a scrapbook is “not your grandma’s photo album.” In this way, the respondent distances herself from the stereotypical scrapbooker similarly to how romance fiction readers distance themselves from the stereotypical reader of romance fiction (Brackett 2000). Scrapbookers, then, know that others perceive scrapbooking differently than they do and take steps to distance themselves and their hobby from stereotypical imagery.
Scrapbooks share common elements with other items such as photograph albums, diaries, and journals, while at the same time makers claim they are something else entirely.
Early in each interview, I conducted a breaching experiment. I attempted to challenge accepted social norms regarding scrapbooking by showing my respondents a cork style bulletin board, a conventional photograph album, and a conventional scrapbook. I then asked respondents which of the items could be considered a scrapbook.
On the cork style bulletin board, I included elements that might be considered scrapworthy (e.g., a wedding invitation, a photograph of my dog, a grocery list, a thank you card, and a Ticketmaster envelope). Ultimately, my respondents agree that corkboards change too frequently to consider them as a scrapbook even though one can include elements on a corkboard that one finds in a scrapbook. Corkboards are inherently temporary and are typically considered to be a message center. A corkboard may tell a story like a scrapbook but it is generally, not something that is passed down to the next generation, like scrapbooks are. Some respondents, however, did think that the corkboard is a variation of scrapbooking—similar to the front of a person’s refrigerator.
Others consider the corkboard to be a pre-scrapbook. The corkboard is a place where a scrapbooker stores items temporarily until they are scrapbooked. In this sense, the corkboard is like a shoebox full of photographs and other memorabilia “awaiting the day when the gatherer will become a compiler” (Ott, Buckler, and Tucker 2006:12).
Most respondents discuss scrapbooks as books of memories, a way to tell one’s story, or both. Other scholars agree with this characterization. According to Ott, Buckler, and Tucker (2006:3) scrapbooks “are a material manifestation of memory.”
Though the center of most scrapbooks is photographs, scrapbooks are not photograph albums. For many respondents, including only the basic details of a photograph are not enough for it to be a scrapbook. The journaling needs to explain the story behind the photograph. Instead of just the who, what, when, and where, scrapbooks should explain the scrapbooker’s feelings, emotions, and reactions to whatever is being scrapbooked. An album where a person can slip in photographs and label the photographs, for the most part, is not considered to be a scrapbook by my respondents.
When pressed as to whether the conventional photograph album could be transformed into a scrapbook, most emphasize the decoration. If I added some pretty paper or stickers, then that would help. Most said, more details of the story need to be included, but I could write that in on slips of paper and put the journaling in a spot intended for a photograph.
Though scrapbooks do not have to contain products produced by the scrapbooking industry, nearly every scrapbook I was shown did. It seems then, that scrapbooks must contain product, something my conventional photo album and corkboard do not. This understanding of a scrapbook is what the industry promotes. Scrapbooks made by scrapbookers outside of the mainstream of scrapbooking looked different from the scrapbooks made by scrapbookers within the mainstream of scrapbooking. For example, a couple of respondents include no product beyond their photographs and writing, which is rather atypical.
Overall, there are patterns as far as what counts as a scrapbook and what doesn’t, however, there is also tremendous variety in terms of what counts as a scrapbook.
So what is a scrapbook? How would you describe a scrapbook to a martian? Join the conversation below or on facebook.
Anonymous. 2007. “Scrap Mania; Hobbies. (launch of Martha Stewart-brand Scrapbook Supplies).” The Economist, May 26, pp. 73.
Brackett, Kim Pettigrew. 2000. “Facework Strategies among Romance Fiction Readors.” The Social Science Journal 37(3):347-60.
Helfand, Jessica. 2008. Scrapbooks: An American History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Ott, Katherine, Susan Tucker, and Patricia P. Buckler. 2006. “An Introduction to the History of Scrapbooks.” Pp. 1-25 in The Scrapbook in American Life. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
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