Scrapbooks, Turning a Page

When everything is virtual, how do we hold onto memories?


The holidays make us nostalgic, so, behold, a childhood memory: When I was growing up in Florida, a state known for horrendous hurricanes, my parents replaced checkers with diversions we called “disaster games,” which taught my sister and me how to escape fires and alligators without giving us night terrors. My favorite disaster game, called “What Would You Do If …?” turned emergency preparedness into a dark art with the help of Rolos and the “Jeopardy!” theme song. My father would put forth a terrifying hypothetical:

“What would you do if you accidentally stabbed your sister?”

“What would you do if Mommy was pinned under a car in the sand?”

We would try to solve the problem. My mother was less gruesome with her disaster-preparedness questions. A home decor enthusiast, she’d ask: “Girls, what would you save if the house were to catch fire?”

The correct answer, so we were told, were the only truly priceless possessions in the house: family scrapbooks.

But what people would grab as they fled flames decades ago isn’t what they’d rescue today. Who’d save the scrapbooks when the MacBook is right next to you on the sofa?

Recently, while looking for a cheap scrapbook where I could keep, among other things, my newspaper clips, I had a startling and sad revelation. Scrapbooks and photo albums — despite the surge in interest in “scrapping” in the late 1990s — are hard to find. Almost obsolete. My intern tried to find me one for this story, and it was tough going.

Stationery giant Papyrus stopped carrying them, citing “decreased demand.” The photo album section at the Target in Columbia Heights stocked only a few styles (most with frogs on them, for kids), and Paper Source sells a few, but they’re “going in different directions, like inspiration boards.”

Inspiration boards?! What about the past? I’m not inspired by family beach trips, my Paula Abdul perm or the ticket stubs I saved from Broadway shows. Are memories less important now?

A Web of Memories

Scrapbooking, the age-old art of putting pieces of things (often ephemera —menus, postcards — the stuff you’re not supposed to keep) in a 2-D book, is almost as archaic as stamp collecting. Memory keeping has always been quaint, but it’s increasingly becoming a lost art when everything valuable lives on a hard drive.

I hear objections, on occasion, that these pastimes are not dead, but my empirical (and completely biased) experience tells me otherwise. In the newsroom, for instance, I rarely see young reporters sneaking off to the bins of extra papers to pick out their print clips for posterity. I’m embarrassed when I do it, pulling out my stories under my desk so that my cubicle partner doesn’t catch my narcissistic attempt to preserve evidence of my career.

Few millennials keep photo albums anymore because of obvious, available innovations: Flickr and Twitpic are out there on the Interwebs, and it’s simpler to post photos of your birthday party, new baby or Vegas vacation using technology.

Best, of all, you can toss out those messy glue sticks and junky glitter pens.

You can also access nostalgia instantly, anywhere, so why not upload your memories to Facebook? Why not post your diary on Blogger? Instead of buying rhinestones and stickers for a scrapbook, why not create a public vision board on Pinterest? All the cool tech gurus in Palo Alto are doing it.

But the lack of memory-keeping in a tangible, tactile form brings up another, more “Matrix”-style question: New technology made us less attached to paper, but has it also made us less attached to memories? Seeing so much content in a steady, downloadable stream — does this make us less concerned with remembering any of it?

I inquired with a memory expert.

“Memories start getting laid down early,” says Jill Scharff, a Bethesda psychiatrist who specializes in child psychiatry and memory. “Narrative memory develops at age 2, when the left brain is fully developed. But for younger generations, with unlimited access to media, there’s a profusion of memory opportunity with less limitations.”

So what does that mean for our vacation snaps and Playbill collections?

“Scrapbooks have page limits,” Scharff says. “For a generation used to instant everything, these limits are less natural. It’s possible the way memory operates is changing. It’s an interesting time.”


Think Inside the Box: West Elm’s glass shadow boxes ($24-$79, Westelm.com) let you collect and display shells, photos, feathers or whatever.

Up Against the Wall

In a Facebook culture, your home — in addition to your laptop — has emerged as a way to keep the past alive in a public,3-D way. Where we once pulled out 2-D, private books, exposed memory boxes and walls of photos allow people to keep the good old days — whether that’s a collage of Grandma’s college days or your own wedding — in 3-D, public space.

“There’s a huge trend with typography and imagery, of putting quotes and sayings on your walls,” says Geraldine James, author of “Creative Walls: How to Display and Enjoy Your Treasured Collections.” ($30, CICO Books) “Letters and words are very personal, so mixing the contents of the scrapbook with the display element is becoming common.”

James says that personalized, glass coffee tables — think giant glass shadow boxes on legs where you display items, are becoming a popular way to showcase Great-Aunt Tille and Great-Uncle Alvarez’s love letters. “Glass domes are also popular,” she says. “They’re a great way of keeping mementos.

“And it fits the time. If you get bored with things, you can replace them and change them out,” says James. “It doesn’t have to be permanent.”

Because, after all, our lives are going by in a click these days anyhow.

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.

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The Manolo · November 18, 2011