Scrapbooks have come into their own. These very personal, handmade snapshots of a person’s life have gained new respect as research tools by historians.

Rare-book dealers discuss their monetary value while archivists focus on conservation. Historians have begun using scrapbooks to flesh out their work.

It’s the humanness and individuality of the humble scrapbook that has made it a respectable medium for historical research in recent years, says Susan Tucker, an archivist at the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women at Tulane University, in New Orleans.

She says scholars as late as the 1980s avoided using scrapbooks in their research because they were deemed too nostalgic, personal and, thus, unreliable.

“Scrapbooks were frowned upon for the same reason we like them now: They were seen as one person’s look at the world and not an unbiased view,” Tucker says.

Jessica Helfand says she became curious about the medium when she found herself digging into the correspondence of poets T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound as a Yale graduate student 20 years ago.

“It occurred to me then that reading biographies never gives you the incredible, vivid rush that you get when holding actual letters in your hand – the postmarks, the pictures, the handwriting, the photos, the errors, the scribbles,” Helfand says. “It’s all so deliriously human.”

Helfand, not a scrapbooker herself, turned her fascination into a new book, “Scrapbooks: An American History” (Yale University Press). It follows the history of scrapbooking from the early 19th century to the present, picking up stories and quirky ephemera along the way.

Helfand especially focuses on scrapbooks made during WWI and WWII, and showcases the many bits and pieces that early 20th century Americans treasured: There are candy wrappers, concert ticket stubs, magazine clippings, even – preserved in the fragile pages of one 1907 scrapbook – a peanut shell.

“Throughout this book, it’s people grabbing what is there on their kitchen table and making sense of it,” Helfand, a graphic designer, says from her home in Falls Village, Conn. “They grabbed gum wrappers and wrote about what was going on in their lives.”

Scrapbooks from unknowns are interspersed with those of poet Anne Sexton, playwright Lillian Hellman and Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of author F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Helfand sought scrapbooks of notable Americans before they became famous to get a more human glimpse of them. For example, Sexton had a tumultuous life and committed suicide at age 46 in 1974, but her scrapbook from 1948 details an earlier, more hopeful time. It’s chockful of the musings of a 19-year-old girl embarking on adulthood as she elopes to Virginia Beach, Va. Sexton even taped the bulky hotel room key into her scrapbook.

“It’s one happy year,” says Helfand, who notes that Sexton’s poetry emerged early on in her youthful scrapbooks. “You see the scrapbook as almost a salvation.”

Helfand now has a personal collection of more than 200 scrapbooks, most dating to the first half of the 20th century and some used and photographed for her book. She keeps them stacked in gray archival boxes in her home.

Inspired by her own collection and research into the hundred or so other scrapbooks she viewed at academic libraries and online, Helfand did start keeping her own journal, filling it with words and artwork.

“I find it is the best therapy,” Helfand says.

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