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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Scrapbooks or scrapping books? More Manna from the Basement

My daughter recently hit upon the idea of making her own book where she could keep items of interest and pictures that she finds interesting. Gathering up an unused binder, some sheets of colored paper, a couple photos, and some ink markers, she set to work.

Click on any picture in this article to see it enlarged.

Back of a World War II poster
in the HMML collections.
Drolleries in Bean Ms. 3.
The idea of creating a scrapbook is nothing new--it's been done for centuries. In a way, the commonplace books and miscellanies of the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period are a form of scrapbook, even if the contents are not cut out of other books or publications--they all represent the accumulation of varied materials that interested the book's owner.  Some of the Early Modern manuscripts in the HMML collections combine German script (mostly prayers or devotional texts) with printed plates glued into the volume.  But what happens when the visual trumps the textual? If all that interests you is the "look" of the item and not the contents of the text, then scrapbooking can take a different turn.

Album of 16th-century
printing examples.
 In the nineteenth century, some people enjoyed the activity of cutting up old manuscripts and books for their artwork. Even the famous art critic, John Ruskin, has gained notoriety for his treatment of medieval books:

"Whatever Ruskin possessed, he desired to share. This desire, and the free scope he gave to it, saved him effectually from "getting to be a mere collector.'" His books, he used to say, were "for use and not for curiosities." He treated them in a way which can hardly be recommended for general practice. He annotated some of his most valuable manuscripts not merely in pencil, but in ink. He cut them to pieces, re-arranged them to his own desire, and of the St. Louis Psalter he dispersed many of the pages. Some were given to his school at Oxford; others found their way to the Bodleian Library; and others were given to his friend, Professor Norton. Some entries in his diary may well cause "a mere collector" to despair:—"Dec. 30, 1853.—Cut out some leaves from large missal." "Jan. 1, Sunday.—Put two pages of missal in frames." "Jan. 8. —Cut missal up in evening; hard work." (From vol. 12 of The Works of John Ruskin, ed. E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, London, 1904, pp. lxix-lxx; see Google Books for the entire text.)

Page from an unprocessed
scrapbook collection.
The Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML; also has examples of scrapbooks.  Sometimes these become known to us through what I call the "manna experience"; i.e., when one finds an unidentified item in the collection and can only ask, "what is it?"

One day this week I spent about two hours looking through ten boxes of scrapbooks that were probably compiled in the 1930's or 1940's by an aspiring art student.  The books, all very grimy and some with clear signs of water damage and mold, have been in the backlog of uncataloged materials that came with the Arca Artium collection at HMML.  The vast content of the scrapbook collection consisted of pictures and articles from art journals and picture magazines (like Life or Look), but the very last box included one volume of original studies, another volume that included some early prints, and a World War II poster.

After some further investigating, it became clear that this collection probably was compiled by Christian Andersen, an art student in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the 1930's or 1940's.  Unfortunately, the trail here breaks off--for now at least.

Another recent "manna experience" was the discovery of an album with cuttings from sixteenth-century printed books, also from the Arca Artium collection.  Here is a sampling of pages from this volume:


Click on any image to see it enlarged or to see a slideshow of the pictures in this posting.

The clippings come from several different sources and represent some view to organizing the contents--some pages contain all initials, some contain all borders or decorative woodcuts, some contain title pages, and some contain only pictures from one particular book.  As such, this volume (which has been described by one person as a sort of "clip-art" book) represents the interests of one particular individual, most likely someone living in the 19th century.  The Library has photographed the entire volume and will soon put these photographs into its online image collection, Vivarium ( For a librarian, like myself, this album poses the challenge to identify the various books from which these pictures and clippings came.  Such albums (or "new books") can be useful for teaching and study, not of a specific sixteenth-century work or text, but of the reception of books that had "outlived their usefulness" in the eyes of a later generation.
Other books that lost their usefulness over time were medieval liturgical books, especially as changes in liturgical practice and religious beliefs took place (see the anecdotes about John Ruskin above). My final example today from the HMML collections is a volume called "Bean Ms. 3" which is an album of clippings from thirteenth- and fourteenth-century manuscripts. The album includes several historiated and decorated initials, as well as drolleries and other decorative elements.  The entire manuscript can be viewed in Vivarium at,3563.  Here are some sample images:

Click on any image to enlarge it.
Thus, the records of the past come down to us in many forms, some of them more fragmentary than others--and some of them fragmentary through intent, not neglect.  In some cases, these scrapbooks may have actually saved the art they contain from oblivion, but in most cases they have probably effaced the past through destruction of the context in which this art was intended to be seen and consumed.
Fortunately, my daughter has not yet learned to cut up books, but she has already cut a picture that she liked, from a box.   For now, at least, let's keep the scissors and glue in plain sight ...