Riley Cox – Cracked Bindings and Unwritten Histories: Why Preservationists are Saving Scrapbooks to Keep Atlanta’s History

Cracked Bindings and Unwritten Histories: Why Preservationists are Saving Scrapbooks to Keep Atlanta’s History

Riley Cox, Emory University

On the second floor of Emory’s Robert W. Woodruff Library currently sits an exhibit, “Unwritten Histories: Preserving Scrapbooks from the Collections,” which aims to reveal why the preservation of scrapbooks containing evidence of the day-to-day lived experiences of ordinary Atlantans matters and how such memory books contribute to local history. “Unwritten Histories” takes its materials from the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library and is possible thanks to a grant earned through the “Save America’s Treasures” program supporting Emory’s efforts to preserve the research value of thirty memory books, specifically within the library’s African American collection.

An example of a fully treated and preserved scrapbook created by Roberta Parks Ellison under the “Save America’s Treasures” grant program. It is currently on display as a part of the “Unwritten Histories: Preserving Scrapbooks from the Collections” exhibit. The image displayed here shows a newly-bound scrapbook open to pages filled with dance invitations, all housed in polyester sleeves performing as new pages to the book.

But how do scrapbooks contribute to our cultural memory in a unique way? Scrapbooks have a variety of purposes but ultimately, they constitute a creative way of record keeping; at its base function, the creator of the scrapbook made it because they wanted to remember something. For example, in some of our scrapbooks you can witness a person’s entire relationship with another person or group. Some of our most interesting memory books were made by Emory’s students nearly a century ago. One contains a cigar butt taped to the page! These student scrapbooks document the early years of Emory’s establishment as an institution of higher education in Atlanta, shortly after its relocation from Oxford, Georgia. Assignments, ephemera from social and professional groups, extracurricular activities, and memories of Emory all fill these pages, providing context for the multitude of changes the college had experienced through the years. Humans have an obsession with nostalgia, and what better way to curb that fix than with a scrapbook?

Scrapbooks like these might have originally been useful for their creators who were later looking to reminisce or show their younger kin what life was like, but they are also potential treasure troves for researchers. Consider the materials used to make the scrapbook; if the creator used cheaper paper, we can infer their socioeconomic status at the time of its creation. Moreover, it tells the audience how the person thought structurally by how the pages within were organized. Some may consider organizing their scrapbook by events or relationships. We can also tell what the person did, had interests in, and learn about their life. Researchers can often find value in observing the creator’s culture through their scrapbooks. My first time ever hearing of a “dance card” was because I saw it in a scrapbook.12

The information about Atlanta’s past contained in the few scrapbooks chosen for this exhibit is remarkable, documenting the varied social clubs in which Atlantans old and young, black and white, circulated and found community. Emory sororities and Glee club members often kept records of the events they held and participated in within the binding of these books. This allows the researcher to see who was in those groups as well as where they toured. An important observation of race relations in Atlanta is also displayed here. The Roberta Parks Ellison scrapbook is one of those preserved through the “Save America’s Treasures” grant. The memory book features the societies that black women such as Ellison participated in, like the Hi-Hi club. This included church groups, social groups, volunteer work and more. Her volunteer work has not been heavily documented elsewhere, but with her memory book we gain new information about what Ellison was like and what she achieved in her lifetime. In contrast, the scrapbook of Martha Lumpkin Compton, the namesake of Atlanta, exhibits what high-society white life was like during the Civil War.3 Compton reused a ledger and stuck poetry, recipe clippings, and her own portrait from the newspaper over the already-used pages. We know what her hobbies were because of this book, giving a rare insight to the woman behind the city.

The image featured here says, “Remains of Sigma Chi [?]” with a used cigar butt attached to the page with tape. There is visible damage and fading on the surrounding ephemera on its host and neighboring pages.

Conservator Julie Newton hopes to catch people’s attention by showing visitors a step-by-step process of preserving scrapbooks, made with old materials that can damage their contents, by repairing and housing them in materials that help to extend the objects’ lifecycles. This is a challenge that folks like Smithsonian intern and writer Eva H. Buchanan-Cates laments, “no matter the topic or preferences of the scrapbook-maker, they likely contain two materials that pose vexing dilemmas for the archivist: glue and newspaper.”4 Folks who enter the library will get the chance to see that polyester sleeves and acidic-free paper materials are healthier for the contents the scrapbook holds.

Whether you are flipping through a scrapbook for research or to rattle your memory, these artifacts encapsulate a moment in time. In a world pushing towards digital forms of recollection, we can assess the affordances that both physical and digital memories offer. Regardless of the content featured, your scrapbook can document a small part of a bigger picture, influencing the historical interpretations of Atlanta that are sure to come in the future.

About the Author

Riley Cox is a graduate student at Clayton State University in the Masters of Archival Studies program and is currently employed at Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.

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Notes   [ + ]

1. For those of you who do not know, ladies would have dance books at dancing events and gentlemen would write their name down to request a dance with her. She would follow through the list as the night went on.
2. This scrapbook is also part of the Emory University Scrapbook Collection, which can be found here: http://pid.emory.edu/ark:/25593/pmnqs
3. After the settlers of Terminus, Georgia, voted to name their city “Lumpkin,” after Compton’s father, Georgia governor Wilson Lumpkin, the governor asked them to name the future city of Atlanta Marthasville, for his daughter, instead. To find out more about scrapbooking in this era, check out: Ellen Gruber Garvey, Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
4. Eva H. Buchanan-Cates, “Scrapbooks: Troublemakers and Treasures in the Archives,” O Say Can You See? Stories from The National Museum of American History, September 30, 2017, http://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/scrapbooks-archives.