Scrapbooks: Challenging Historical Treasures

The holiday season is a great time to look through old scrapbooks and share their stories and memories with family and friends. This year, why not also spend some time thinking about and planning how to preserve these homemade historical treasures for future generations? This blog will introduce you to scrapbooks, some of the problems scrapbooks present, provide basic examples of preservation tactics and guidance on handling, and offer basic tips if creating your own scrapbook.        

The Society of American Archivists’ Dictionary of Terminology defines a scrapbook as “a blank book, often with a simple string binding, used to store a variety of memorabilia, such as newspaper clippings, awards, menus, and photographs.” Anyone who owns an heirloom, such as a family scrapbook, knows that they have much greater intrinsic value than this definition may suggest. In addition, scrapbooks also provide insight into specific times, geographical locations, or events in history through the day-to-day lives and interests of their creators. Scrapbooking records social and political activities, as well as the personally meaningful activities of individuals. 

A page from a nineteenth century commercially marketed photo album.

Are Scrapbooks Different from Photo Albums?

The terms “scrapbook” and “photo album” are often used interchangeably, but distinct differences exist between these two memorabilia. Photo albums contain primarily, if not exclusively, photographs and often lack detailed captions identifying where and when a photo was taken. Scrapbooks, on the other hand, may contain photographs in addition to memorabilia and ephemera and often include writing that provides context for the items. There are, of course, gray areas, and creators may have used a photo album as a scrapbook or a scrapbook just for photographs. For this reason, while they are different, this post’s information on handling, preservation, and storage can be valuable for both photo albums and scrapbooks.

Scrapbooking’s Historical Importance

Scrapbooking, as we commonly recognize it, emerged as a hobby during the early 1800s and flourished in the Victorian era. Victorians (mostly women) pasted clippings, calling cards, pressed flowers, and illustrations into bound volumes and practiced penmanship by copying poems and sonnets. By the mid-nineteenth century, scrapbooking had trickled down to other social classes. Requiring only a bound blank book and some type of adhesive, scrapbooking could be affordable, while the increasingly wide-scale availability of photography led to including more photographs within scrapbooks.

Literacy helped democratize the hobby. Clive Thompson wrote about this phenomenon in his Smithsonian Magazine article “When Copy and Paste Reigned in the Age of Scrapbook,” describing how some men compiled articles on strange deaths, and women pasted news articles and pamphlets on house cleaning methods into scrapbooks. It was also common for clubs and sports teams to sponsor communal scrapbooks filled with photographs, newspaper clippings, and programs from events or games. Political activities were also commonly represented within scrapbooks as is seen below in Adele Kahn Weil’s scrapbook. Kahn Weil was a lifelong Montgomery resident, active in several civic clubs during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

Scrapbooks also developed into tools for empowerment as a way for marginalized communities to share and preserve their history. Frederick Douglass was an ardent supporter of scrapbooks, calling on people to document their community’s experience by clipping and pasting specific newspaper articles alongside their daily lives.

Scrapbooking continued to grow in popularity during the twentieth century, and several companies began producing bound blank books solely for this purpose. Companies regularly introduced new adhesives and page decorations for scrapbooks. Some of their innovations proved great for deterring damage, such as photo corners, whereas others have been destructive, such as magnetic scrapbooks. 

The 1960s saw the mass market introduction of “magnetic scrapbooks,” which would become one of the most prevalent types of scrapbooks for the next several decades. “Magnetic” in this context, however, is a misnomer, since the pages are not magnetic but coated in an adhesive that allows the scrapbooker to affix photos and ephemera directly to the page without additional glue, destructive to the memorabilia the scrapbooker intended to preserve. Magnetic scrapbooks are still available for purchase today but should be avoided.  

The wide-ranging historical value of scrapbooks means that most archival repositories have at least one scrapbook in their collections, if not dozens! The Ida Carrie Seale Junior League of Montgomery, and R.S. Owen scrapbooks are just three of the scrapbooks held by the Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH). These scrapbooks cover a wide variety of experiences and topics. Ida Carrie Seale’s scrapbook documents her life as a nurse, the Junior League of Montgomery scrapbook pertains to history and locations in the Montgomery area, and R.S. Owen’s scrapbook contains horticulture and garden management clippings and poetry.

ADAH Collections Archivist Jamie Kicklighter’s presentation on the Arthur Shores scrapbook and how it documents Shores’ incredible achievements during the Civil Rights Movement illustrates the historical value of scrapbooks.  

Problems with Scrapbook Materials and Contents

The historical value of scrapbooks, notwithstanding, you shouldn’t be surprised to see concern on the face of an archivist when a new scrapbook is accepted by a repository because scrapbooks can be challenging to preserve! The multi-media contents often have specific preservation and storage needs that conflict with one another, and the scrapbook itself might require conservation or preservation. Below are some problems that may accompany even the most well-kept scrapbooks:

  • Paper. Scrapbooks could be made of any bound paper, and the quality and type of that paper varies greatly from scrapbook to scrapbook. Acidic paper deteriorates quickly and discolors. Some types of paper may also become brittle over time, tearing easily if not handled with great care. While not extremely common, some scrapbook pages will also exhibit foxing,” reddish brown spots caused by the oxidation of metals left in the paper from the paper-making process.

This scrapbook page is discolored due to deterioration.
  • Adhesives. As mentioned above, new adhesives were introduced rapidly during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so the type of adhesives used in scrapbooks are as varied as the contents pasted into the pages. Glues, tapes, and stickers feature commonly in scrapbooks, and all have their challenges. Many types of tape become brittle and lose tackiness over time, which will cause items to detach from the page and leave a residue. Glues, especially rubber cement, will darken over the years, causing staining to scrapbook pages and the backs of items. Stickers often cannot be removed without causing more damage than they are currently inflicting. 

    As you will recall, the most popular later twentieth-century scrapbooks were “magnetic scrapbooks.” The adhesive-coated pages in these scrapbooks can cause irreversible damage to all items affixed to the page, but especially to photographs. The acidic adhesive embeds itself into the photograph’s backing, making it all but impossible to remove. You can learn more about photograph composition in our National Photography Month blog.

  • Newspapers. Newspapers are printed on inexpensive wood pulp paper that is unstable, acidic, and not produced to last. Commonly, chemical reactions cause newspapers to deteriorate, and this yellowing effect can stain other items in a scrapbook if they remain in contact with the newsprint for long periods.   

  • Metals. Staples, paper clips, and other fasteners often found on the programs, menus and other ephemera in a scrapbook rust and corrode, staining paper and fabrics. Some fasteners’ sharp points can do additional damage if they come loose.

  • Leather, Fur, and other Animal Products. Over time, animal products can become brittle and shrink or tear. In humid conditions, moisture can lead to distortion, swelling, and, sometimes, mold growth. Insects may also be attracted to the proteins in animal products and will make a meal of a precious heirloom if given the chance.

  • Binding. Constant opening and closing of a scrapbook, as well as improper storage, can cause damage to the spine. If the scrapbook is bound with ribbon or twine, these bindings can deteriorate. Metal bindings can present the same issues as metal fasteners. 
  • Glitter. Before 1934, glitter was an expensive luxury made of glass, but 1934 brought the introduction of affordable plastic glitter. Whether plastic or glass, glitter has sharp edges that scratch any memorabilia or photographs in a scrapbook. Sparkly greeting cards, stickers, and even intentionally added glitter are commonly found in nineteenth, twentieth, and even twenty-first century scrapbooks.

  • Loss or Change of Context. The practice of grouping records together according to their creator is fundamental to archival arrangement theory. Scrapbooks provide a great example of why original order is so important. When items fall out of a scrapbook either because they have become loose or were never affixed to the pages, the item may lose its context entirely.

Preservation of Scrapbooks and a Note on Conservation

It is not uncommon to hear “preservation” used as an umbrella term for both preservation and conservation activities in cultural heritage repositories, but the two are different. Preservation reduces and prevents damage to extend a document’s life, while conservation is more specifically the treatment of damaged documents. 

Conservation treatments for scrapbooks can be costly and time-consuming because of the diverse and complex problems a single scrapbook may present. The Library of Congress explains, “Decisions on how to approach the care of these items [scrapbooks] must take into consideration institutional collection policies and priorities, intrinsic worth, exhibit potential, and informational content.” Considering all these factors, it is usually preferable to preserve a scrapbook as best as possible to extend its life, undertaking conservation treatments only if or when necessary.

Some common steps taken to preserve scrapbooks include the following:

  • Digitizing The most common reason for digitizing a scrapbook is to reduce handling. People can view the digital version of the scrapbook while the physical scrapbook stays safely stored. This avoids causing physical strain in pulling the scrapbook from the shelf, turning pages, and exposing the book to light. Overhead scanners or tripod cameras should be used to capture digital images of the scrapbook. Ideally, both the full page and individual items should be digitized. Bound scrapbooks should NEVER be placed face down on a copier or scanner, as this causes damage to the spine.

Use a camera on a tripod to capture images of each page of the scrapbook
  • Interleaving Acid-free tissue acts as a shield between materials. For example, a sheet of tissue between two pages will keep an acidic newspaper clipping or rusting metal fastener from coming into contact with other pages and ephemera, stopping discoloration. A caveat is that interleaving should not be used to the detriment of the scrapbook. Deceptively thin, several sheets of tissue can bulk up quickly, straining the book’s binding. If this is the case for your scrapbook, consider other preservation options, such as disbinding or separating the materials.
  • Separating materials This step may come as a surprise, since losing context is one of the problems with scrapbooks outlined earlier. However, removing items from a scrapbook is sometimes necessary to preserve them. Examples include removing botanical and animal-based items from the book and removing and flattening posters, newspapers, and oversized documents that were folded and tucked into the scrapbook. The separation of items should be documented fully with separation sheets that describe the removed items, where they were initially located in the scrapbook, current storage location, and the reason for removal. Ideally, a digitized version of the scrapbook should be created prior to separating materials. This step can cause more damage, both physically and instrinsically, so care should be taken in this decision.

  • Disbinding If a scrapbook is bound together with string or metal fasteners, it may be necessary to disbind the book altogether. Unbound pages help avoid breaking or bending brittle pages. Extensive interleaving that does not fit within the confines of the bound book is another reason to disbind a scrapbook.

  • Sleeving and Encapsulation Placing pages and items in inert plastic sleeves is another preservation tactic. Archival quality polyester sleeves are an option for fragile paper items which will benefit from the rigid plastic’s support and are already disbound. Do NOT place in sleeves items that contain charcoal, chalk, pastel, or heavy graphite. These materials crumble easily, and sleeves, which are static, would damage them. Sleeves can be purchased from most archival supply companies, including Gaylord and University Products

    Encapsulation is similar to sleeving materials but requires enclosing documents and ephemera between two sheets of polyester film sealed with double-sided tape. Supplies for encapsulation are also available through archival supply companies.

    An Important Note: Lamination is NOT the same as sleeving or encapsulation and should be avoided at all costs. For more information on the dangers of lamination, please see this blog from the Museums Association of Saskatchewan.
  • Boxing Placing scrapbooks in boxes is a preservation step that helps protect these priceless items from many threats, including light, dust, water, and even some pests. Boxing disbound volumes also ensures that the loose pages are contained.

    Due to their weight, scrapbooks should be stored flat, reducing strain and damage to the bindings. Boxing helps avoid any urges to stand the book up on a shelf.

    Archival supply companies offer boxes in different standard sizes in addition to adjustable storage boxes. Store scrapbooks in an appropriately sized box. The box should not be so small that it squeezes the book but should not have large amounts of extra space. Too much space allows a scrapbook to slide around, possibly causing damage. Packing acid-free tissue around the edges of the scrapbook can provide additional protection.

Handling Scrapbooks

Since scrapbooks hold valuable information about the people and the places documented in their pages, it is tempting to keep your scrapbook on hand to show your friends, family, and visitors who might be interested in its contents. If you do so, be aware that too much handling leads to wear and tear. Oils from hands can cause damage to photographs, and the spine of the scrapbook will be more likely to break with regular opening. Additionally, handling the scrapbook will be much more cumbersome if you undertake some of the previously described preservation actions.

Taking high-quality digital images of your scrapbook may be a safer way to share the scrapbook regularly. Save viewings of the actual physical book for special occasions, and your scrapbook will remain in better condition for years. If you choose to continue to handle the scrapbook, here are a few things you can do to prolong its life:

  • Support the Spine This is especially important for heavy scrapbooks. It is best not to lay the book entirely flat. Support the spine when the scrapbook is open. You can use rolled-up towels for support, book cradles, or foam wedges. Also, avoid leaving the scrapbook in an open position for long periods. High-quality mounts from museum and archive suppliers are good investments if you display the scrapbook. University Products and Hollinger offer foam wedge book systems. 
  • Never Place Open and Face Down This position causes strain on the binding, can damage the photographs and ephemera on the pages, and loose items may slip out of the scrapbook when in this position. This includes when making copies or taking images of a scrapbook. The safest path is never to photocopy a bound scrapbook.
Avoid placing a scrapbook in this position.
  • Be Mindful of Hands Make sure everyone’s hands are clean and completely dry before handling a scrapbook. Oil from hands can ruin photographs and stain fabrics commonly used to make ribbons. White cotton gloves may cause wearers to fumble, leading to ripping and tearing pages. Instead, choose nitrile gloves when handling a scrapbook. Also, remember not to rest your hands and weight on a scrapbook when leaning over it. A good rule of “thumb” is to keep your hands in your lap and only use them when necessary to turn a page, open an envelope, etc.
  • No Food or Drink Do not handle the scrapbook while eating or drinking. Make sure the table you display the scrapbook on is free of all food and crumbs. Spills can cause irreversible damage, such as causing ink to run. Crumbs can scratch photographs and attract pests which may devour the scrapbook contents after they polish off the actual food. 
Two children demonstrate how NOT to handle a scrapbook, including resting their weight on the book and having a snack while viewing it.
  • Avoid Glitter One of the most popular times to share family scrapbooks is during the holidays when the entire family has gathered. Holiday décor often has glitter. Ensure that the table you use to display your scrapbook hasn’t also been graced with glitter from your sparkling poinsettia centerpiece or artificial snow!

Some Tips for Creating Your Own Scrapbook

A growing understanding of deterioration has led to products that stand the test of time better than their predecessors. Using materials that deteriorate slowly and do not actively cause harm to the memorabilia in your scrapbook is a great way to help a scrapbook last, but don’t assume that if a product says it is “archival quality,” it will last forever. Instead, look for “buffered” and “lignin-free” in the advertising.

When scrapbooking photographs, look for products that have passed the P.A.T. (Photographic Activity Test). This is an international standard that tests for reactions between chemicals and photographs over time. 

Here are some other basic steps to take while you are creating your scrapbook to ensure it lasts well into the future.

  • Interleave with acid-free paper when necessary to keep newspaper from touching other pages. This will stop damage from occurring in the first place. Remember that you should cut interleaving paper to fit the size of the scrapbook and not overfill the book to the point of straining the spine.
  • Use adhesive photo corners to affix items to your scrapbook. These corners don’t leave sticky residue on the item since they are applied directly to the pages of the scrapbook.

  • Be discerning with what you put in the scrapbook. Remember to think about the deterioration and damage that each item could cause and use methods such as encapsulating organic materials in polyester before placing them in the book. 

  • Make sure to provide information and identification for each item that you do decide to place in a scrapbook. Give the event date, identify every person and pet in photographs, and provide locations. Be specific. “Grandpa’s house” is useful only if the viewer knows who grandpa is and where his house was located. “Grandpa Joe’s House on Cedar Street” or “Grandpa Joe’s House in Grayville” is much more informative and will make the information accessible to others in the future. Think about the people looking at your scrapbook in a few decades. Sure, they can probably guess why you’ve included a photograph of a gigantic squash on the page with a blue ribbon from the county fair, but you can erase any doubt by including captions about when and where you received the ribbon for your prize-winning produce.
  • Avoid glitter! Hopefully, the prior mentions of glitter’s sharp edges have warned you off including this art supply. If you cannot pass up the chance to add a bit of glitz and glam to your scrapbook, think about encapsulating the pages to ensure that glitter does not come in contact with any other part of your scrapbook. 

As your family gathers over the holiday seasons this year, take some time to look through your scrapbooks and plan to help preserve these precious heirlooms. Keep in mind that the most important thing is to not cause further damage to your scrapbook. Undertaking simple preservation steps such as boxing or interleaving will help to extend the life of the scrapbook without causing further damage, while other activities such as removing photos need to be done with a careful hand. Please see the list of resources below for more in-depth discussions and step-by-step guides for handling and preserving scrapbooks.

The ADAH Records Management Section put this blog together.

Scrapbook Preservation, Conservation, and Creation Resources:

Barker, Melissa. “Preserving Old Black Paper Photo Albums” A Genealogist in the Archives, June 13, 2018.

Barker, Melissa. “Preserving Pressed Flowers” A Genealogist in the Archives, May 23, 2018.

Connecting to Collections Care. “The Care of Leather and Fur” Accessed September 21, 2022. “How to Save the Photos in Magnetic Albums” Accessed September 20, 2022.

Jmkyoung. “From the Archives: Perseveration Week’s Metal Fasteners” Collins Unbound, University of Puget Sound. April 19, 2015.

Library of Congress. “The Deterioration and Preservation of Paper: Some Essential Facts” Accessed September 21, 2022.

Library of Congress. “Preservation Basics: Preservation of Scrapbooks and Albums” Accessed September 21, 2022.

Library of Congress. “Preservation Measures for Newspapers” Accessed September 20, 2022.

McGill Library. “How to Remove Photos from Adhesive Albums” Accessed November 15, 2022.

Minnesota Historical Society. “Skin and Skin Products (Leather)” Accessed September 21, 2022.

State of Missouri Office of the Secretary of State. “Simple Things your Can do to Preserve Scrapbooks” Accessed September 21, 2022.

Northeast Documentation Conservation Center. “What is Preservation?” Accessed November 18, 2022.,-The%20distinction%20between&text=Since%20the%201980s%2C%20the%20library,treatment%20of%20individual%20damaged%20items.

Ritzenthaler, Mary Lynn. “Preserving Scrapbooks” Prologue Magazine, The National Archives. Winter 2015 Vo. 47 No. 4.,items%20you%20want%20to%20preserve

General and Historical Scrapbook Resources:

Beineck Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Walter O. Evans Collection of Frederick Douglass and Douglass Family Papers. Accessed September 21, 2022.

California State University – Northridge. “The History of Scrapbooks” Peek in the Stacks. October 22, 2019.

Dekalb History Center. “Scrapbooks’ Cultural History” August 2, 2018.,items%20from%20their%20own%20life.

Gambino, Megan. “The Cherished Tradition of Scrapbooking” Smithsonian Magazine. May 13, 2019.

Heckles, Marianne. “All about Your Albums. Save your Photos Month” Lancaster History, September 21, 2021. “The Fascinating History of Scrapbooking” Accessed September 20, 2022.

Watton, Cherish. “The Radical History of Scrapbooks and Why Activists Still Use Them Today” The Conversation – University of Cambridge. December 22, 2021.


350543. Video Cinematography. 2016

Cameron, Kirk. 1 us dollar bill photo. 2021

Fotios, Lisa. Scrapbook on White Textile. 2019

ha11ok. Family Anno. 2022

Mozlase. Kids, Books, Apples.

Rumee, Tamanna. Background, Christmas, Ornament.

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