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In Defense of Paper

Technology has its place, but ....

by Nancy Nally (July 17, 2006)

(Note: This was written in reaction to CLN's report of a New York Times article on the growth of digital scrapbooking. To read other comments on the digital vs. hard-copy issue, click on Memory, Paper & Stamps.)

The New York Times seems to think that paper is on its way out in the scrapbook industry. I would argue that, while that may be the story in the news industry, it is definitely not the case in the scrapbook industry.

The New York Times forgot an important part of scrapbooking in their analysis of paper vs. digital when they proclaimed the inevitable death of paper scrapbooking: the enjoyment factor. This element alone, in my opinion, negates their argument in several ways.

For me, as a scrapbooker, there is just something very satisfying about the tactile enjoyment of handling the papers and other materials, and the physical moving around of page elements. Creating a design on the computer, for me, just lacks that tactile enjoyment of my work. It feels sterile and cold by comparison. The enjoyment factor of the tactile process of working with paper elements instead of with a plastic keyboard should not be undervalued in a world that is becoming increasingly plastic.

Another argument for paper’s superiority in the "enjoyment factor" is the social element of scrapbooking. It’s been said many times that crops are modern-day quilting bees, where women gather together to engage in their craft while bonding and sharing time together. Many women become involved in the hobby through their friends, for primarily this social reason.

But the ability to socialize while scrapbooking is mostly lost to a digital scrapbooker. Even if a digital scrapbooker has a portable laptop on which to scrap, a group of women all sitting at their laptops working at vertical screens does not lend itself to the same level of social interaction that a group of women sharing a table working on layouts laid flat in front of them does. They can all see each other’s work easily, leading easily to discussion. They can share tools and supplies, promoting interaction. For most scrappers, a crop is as much about social time as it is about scrapping time, and digital scrapbooking simply cannot provide that in near the same way.

The New York Times also seems to forget, apparently blinded by a love of fancy gadgets, that the highest technology is not always the superior tool to use for every application. This becomes very apparent about scrapbooking if you consider archival issues and the longevity of the results of a scrapbooker’s creative efforts.

There are two issues in considering the archival life of digital scrapbooking. The first is the life of the files themselves. Even if stored correctly, digital media storage will degrade – often in a space of only two to three years – by simply becoming completely unreadable, meaning the data is completely lost.

Even if the files survive the storage process, the media or file type may become obsolete and unreadable in a very few number of years, thanks to the rapid world of technology development. In contrast, paper items created with acid-free and lignin-free products and photographic process prints can last decades with little sign of degradation if stored correctly. Although they may eventually show signs of deterioration, even when the layouts are somewhat damaged the memories are not completely lost.

Printing out digital layouts doesn’t solve these archival issues. Even under optimum printing and storage conditions, computer printed layouts have a very short archival life and will yellow and fade to virtual invisibility in a fraction of the time that "traditional" paper layouts will show deterioration. Having the layouts photographically printed can solve this problem, but this is an expensive process for large page sizes.

Another issue that the New York Times failed to consider in declaring the death knell of paper scrapbooking is the relative accessibility of the two forms of the craft. In this area as well, I believe that the traditional paper form still has a large advantage over the digital art.

First, there is the question of needed skills. Brand-new paper scrapbookers can be taught in a two-hour class all the basics they need to know to be able to jump in and enjoy participating in the hobby alongside their friends. These basic skills can be easily acquired by kids, or by people (especially seniors) who aren’t technically savvy enough to even use a web browser or email. The learning curve to be a functioning paper scrapper is not steep at all.

On the other hand, to be a competent digital scrapbooker, you need to have working knowledge of a computer graphic design program such as Photoshop Elements. The easiest, most user-friendly of those programs can take dozens of hours of training and practice to acquire basic skills in using, even if you are tech-savvy to begin with.

Another factor regarding the accessibility of the two forms of scrapbooking is the price of the initial investment that a new scrapbooker must make. A new paper scrapper needs scissors, some adhesive and some paper and embellishments. A new digital scrapbooker needs a computer graphics program often costing $100 or more – and a computer capable of running it, which may require an upgrade to their existing machine. That is a large investment to make before you’ve even made your first page!

I will concede the point to the Times that digital scrapbooking requires less space to participate in because there are no paper supplies and no physical tools to be stored, and no paper books to store. However, I believe that the benefits of paper scrapbooking far outweigh the room that it takes to do. And I have seen some dedicated scrappers whose entire supplies are stored in a large scrapbook supply tote, so I know the amount of space devoted to paper supplies does not have to be overwhelming for the activity to be enjoyable.

Before the digital scrapbooking mob hangs me in effigy, please allow me to say that I do not hate digital scrapbooking! I actually am in the process of learning to do some digital scrapbooking myself, and I have great respect for many of the digital scrapbook artists whose work that I see regularly such as Shannon Freeman, Anne Langpap, and Rhonna Farrer. Their work is unquestionably beautiful and inspires me in my creating. However, I do not foresee digital ever being my primary format of creation, for the many reasons that I mentioned above. I will use those skills for specific projects but paper will always be my main artistic outlet.

I believe that the future of scrapbooking will come in the blending of digital skills and tools with a paper base. Already we are seeing that integration begin. It began awhile ago with journaling. For a long time, most dedicated paper scrapbookers have typeset their journaling for their pages on the computer and then printed it out to adhere to their pages. Fonts are now a high-profile market segment because of companies like Creating Keepsakes and Two Peas in a Bucket, who create and market fonts directly for and to scrapbookers.

The digital integration movement has continued with the shift towards digital photography. More scrapbookers using digital photography also means more scrapbookers using digital photo editing and enhancing techniques, cropping and fixing photos, or applying digital effects before printing them for use on their pages.

Finally, another big step towards this integration has recently taken place as more paper scrapbookers are using their computers to create more advanced elements that will be used on their paper pages – such as decorative transparencies, clip art masks and die-cuts, and other custom page elements. There are some new high-tech tools (albeit with some hefty price tags) available to scrapbookers to do these things, such as Xyron’s Design Runner portable handheld printer, and their Wishblade, a computerized die-cutting system. ProvoCraft also is making the Cricut, a computerized cutting system, and the Pazzles Creative Cutter is another pioneer in that category.

Rather than killing the category altogether, technology will take paper scrapbooking to new heights and offer new levels of customization to some hobbyists while still allowing paper to maintain its basic foundation of assets that will provide the category its long-term stability.

(Note: Nancy is a designer in the scrapbook segment of the crafts industry and recently began writing in that area as well. She is the author of the blog, Inside Scrapbooking (http://insidescrapbooking.typepad.com), about issues and news of interest to serious and professional designers. She is also a regular contributor Creative TECHniques. You can read her resume at www.scrapbookresumes.com/NancyNally. To comment on Nancy's article, email CLN at mike@clnonline.com.)



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