Open one of the 224 scrapbooks in the Paul Whiteman collection, and you’ll find anything from concert reviews to photographs of Whiteman and his daughter Margo at a horse show or an interview with Whiteman’s father, Wilberforce. There are images printed on photo paper, delicate pages torn from magazines, and thousands of articles on yellowing sheets of brittle newsprint. The scrapbooks have been an interesting series to work with not only for their content, but for the opportunity they provide to consider the challenges of archival preservation.
While scrapbooks were meant to preserve memories and ephemera for the future, they were not manufactured to withstand the passage of time. The poor quality of the leaves and the binding put the content at risk from the start. A cover will protect the leaves only so long as it is attached to them. Scrapbooks tied with leather or synthetic chords will often shift or come unbound with time.
Leaves exposed to highly acidic newsprint will be stained by it and become brittle to the touch, increasing the risk of damage with each use. The glue used to adhere clippings to the leaves of the book poses its own risk, bleeding through and distorting the content.
Digitization of the full scrapbook series would be ideal, however a number of obstacles stand in the way of such an project. The sheer size of the series, 224 scrapbooks and thousands of pages, would require hundreds of hours of dedicated work, during which I would be pulled away from other series in the collection. The outsourcing of the scrapbooks, while it would allow me to continue my focus on other aspects of the collection, may be tremendously complicated (many of the leaves have newsprint attached to them in five or more layers) and prohibitively expensive.
If digitization is not possible in the immediate future, there are still steps we can take to care for the scrapbooks in order to extend their life and use. The scrapbooks have been rehoused in acid-free boxes of appropriate size, and while the bulk created by interleaving acid-free sheets of paper poses its own risk to the materials (by placing added stress on the binding), acid free sheets may be used selectively to prevent further damage to particularly vulnerable leaves. Accurate description of the content plays a role, too, allowing researchers to target use of the scrapbooks based on their interests, saving wear and tear on the scrapbooks with content outside of their scope.
The challenge with these scrapbooks is to balance access and preservation. We want researchers to use them today, rich as they are with insight into Whiteman’s life and work, while at the same time ensuring their safety and availability for generations to come.
Written by Laurel Rhame, Project Archivist