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Stop Worrying about Digital Scrapbooking...

... And worry about printing photos instead.

by Sharon Cooke, Owner, Scrapbook Clubhouse, Westbrook, CT (September 17, 2007)

I own a scrapbooking store, and I have been a traditional scrapbooker for a long time. I also know how to scrapbook digitally and I sometimes scrapbook digitally for a bit of fun. These are my credentials for the message that follows, which is that all this talk about digital scrapbooking sweeping the world is just a red herring.

Let me bluntly state part of my core conviction at the very beginning: if digital scrapbooking takes over from traditional scrapbooking, scrapbooking retailers, both large and small, are sunk. The very nature of digital scrapbooking makes it impossible to offer anything that would even begin to keep our businesses afloat. But and my fellow scrapbookers can breathe again digital scrapbooking is not going to take over from traditional, no matter how many articles you may have read to the contrary.

To understand why digital scrapbooking is not a tsunami waiting to happen, we need to look at two earlier technological predictions widely believed to have been accurate at the time they were made. The first, which many of us will remember from the 1980's when personal computers were first becoming popular, was "the paperless office." As word processing and then computerized spreadsheets and then databases came into every office and more and more homes, the pundits predicted the end of the paper industry.

Younger people among my readers may be dumbfounded to hear this, but it's true. Manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers at the time were warned to get out of the paper business before they went bankrupt. Of course I don't have to tell anyone that the prediction turned out to be utterly wrong and that offices today, far from being paperless, now use exponentially more paper than ever before. Anyone who got out of the paper business in the 1980's has probably jumped off a cliff by now.

The other prediction was that film cameras would be quickly replaced by digital ones. By now we all know that these forecasters were absolutely right. Less than 15% of photographs today are shot on film. The question is, why was the prediction about the paperless office wrong and the one about digital cameras right? It boils down to this: the pundits forgot to take into question the real nature of actually using the technology.

I use a digital camera, and I love it. I can see the picture I've taken immediately and I can shoot with abandon without fear of wasting expensive film. Other than those two advantages, shooting pictures with a digital camera is not much different from shooting with a comparable camera using film. It's essentially the same experience and requires the same skills. So of course people are choosing digital over film. You might call it a no-brainer.

But the paperless office is another matter. To read material on a screen uses a different skill set from reading it on paper. You have to scroll down through your material, you have to be sitting in front of your computer to do it, and if it's something that you're writing yourself, you have to make changes by obliterating what you had before rather than reading the difference between what is in your handwriting (the change) and what is in type (the original version).

After 25 years of word processing, people still need to print a hard copy of many, many things they read and write on the computer. (I, for example, am always teaching myself new computer programs but to use an item in the help articles, I frequently print it out and put it on the desk in front of me, needing to move my eyes from the directions on paper up to the screen where I'm learning the skill.) In short, there is a disorientation inherent in the use of that keeps people from ever getting used to doing it without lots and lots of paper.

If you grant me then, that technology that demands too great a change and too much effort will not succeed over technology that is easier, you will begin to see what the problem is with digital scrapbooking: Digital scrapbooking is very difficult to learn. Very.

To create a digital layout that is even remotely as creative and satisfying as a person with nothing but a three-hour class in traditional scrapbooking can create easily, a digital scrapbooker has to study long and hard with confusing, mathematically and spatially challenging concepts. She needs to understand dpi, blending modes, layers, brushes, the entire toolbar of Photoshop, to name only a very few parts of the process.

She needs to own a computer, a scanner, a printer suited to the size she scraps in, and have a broadband connection to the Internet. She needs not to be burned out from using a computer at work. She needs not to have to share the computer with her family because she's going to have to spend a huge amount of time on that machine. She needs books and tutoring, and most of all she needs to endure stunning amounts of frustration because digital scrapbooking involves skills that have to be learned over and over again and which are easily forgotten if they are not practiced regularly.

In short, digital scrapbooking is not unlike telling a hobbyist she ought to give up playing with paper and embellishments and take up the study of Russian instead. No doubt the latter occupation can be extremely rewarding, but hey, nobody's doing it.

I have offered classes in Photoshop Elements. I am a teacher by training so I know how to prepare a lesson carefully, building on concepts gradually. I give a 90-minute lesson in Photoshop Elements to four scrapbookers on a very limited aspect of digital scrapbooking: how to scan a photo, adjust it for color, brightness or contrast (largely automatic in that program) and enlarge and print it something they are highly motivated to do.

I make sure each person not only has hands-on experience in doing her own scanning and enlarging, but also helps another student (explaining complex tasks help us learn them better ourselves). At the end of the class, everybody knows how to do it. I make them promise me they will practice when they get home because it takes very little time to forget what they've just learned.

When I see them again, I ask them how it's going. They tell me it isn't. They couldn't remember how to do it when they got home and they couldn't stand the process of trying to figure out how to even phrase the question correctly to get help on the screen. They happily returned to traditional scrapbooking.

Knitting can be done by a machine. It takes less time and produces more uniform results. Very few knitters do it that way. They don't want to be tied to the machine and that's not why they're in the hobby. What knitting by machine is to the art and hobby of hand knitting is not even a fraction of the alienation scrapbooking digitally is to the art and hobby of scrapbooking.

I could, of course, be wrong, but I'm betting quite confidently that even though a small percentage of scrapbookers will happily embrace digital, it will never be greater than that; it will never overcome traditional scrapbooking, and any store owner who starts reorganizing her business to embrace digi is going to go broke.

Part Two: Printing Photos.

In the first part of my article, I explained why digital scrapbooking is not going to overtake the traditional form. But before we all get too comfortable again, I do have to warn that there is a tsunami that could very well wipe us all out.

When modern scrapbooking got started with home party vendors, a message of fear helped to spread it. Those photos, we were told, are not only unloved and unappreciated in those boxes, but they may be stored in the wrong climactic conditions. One day you may open them to find the images are all gone or all stuck together without a negative in sight.

And the ones that are in albums! They're in even greater danger from extreme temperatures, rampant acidity, and lecherous lignin. When I first started scrapbooking, I downplayed this message of fear. Now I wish I could bring it all back in spades. The digital camera has brought a whole new way of photo storage that is not only less safe than ever but absolutely uninspiring to the scrapbooker, and it's the inspired scrapbooker who sustains my current livelihood.

A woman used to film 36 shots of her child's birthday party and then send or drop off the film at the photo shop, only to eagerly await its return when she could relive the party and, if she was a scrapbooker, could begin to preserve the memories the pictures help her recall.

Today, however, she sees the photos she's taken immediately on the camera and then once again when she dumps them to her computer. It's all so easy, all so reliable. She can always look at those photos, she can always decide which of the 300 shots she made that day are out of focus or repetitive or too dark or too light, and she can always edit the photos down to a manageable dozen that she might someday put together as a story of the day itself. Only she doesn't.

You shoot your first 200 pictures on your digital camera and download them. Then you shoot hundreds more. They are building up with automatic ease on your computer. The task of evaluating them and editing them looms more and more daunting every time you download another bunch. It's much easier just to take more pictures and put off sorting them.

But you can't scrapbook them until you sort them (this is true for both traditional and digital photographers). Until you decide which ones are the best, until you decide which ones help you tell the story, which ones would make good focal points, which ones should be enlarged, which ones reduced you can't possibly decide how to scrapbook them.

Meanwhile how safe are these photos? Not safe at all. A computer can lose years of photos (none of which have negatives) in a nanosecond. A backup drive can fail too. CD-ROMS and DVDs are only good for a limited amount of time, if at all, as many downloads to disks will fail when you go to look at them, even though the computer did not warn you of that at the time. The only way those pictures can be safe is if they are backed-up immediately to a secondary hard disk, then uploaded to a remote site. Of course traditional photos are in danger too. They can be destroyed by flood or fire, for example, but floods and fires are far less likely to occur than fatal hard drive crashes, which happen to everyone frequently.

The more photos that are building up on computers with no loving attention, the less the memories are being preserved. I have photos from my family of people whom nobody alive today can identify. I'm saddened every time I see them and wonder who they were and why this particular photo was worth preserving for so long. Our children and our children's children aren't going to have any more information about the thousands and thousands of pictures on our computers, just perhaps more sadness.

Besides the fact that these photos and the memories they stand for are in danger of being lost forever, they don't inspire many pages. A huge majority of scrapbookers can't conceive of a scrapbook plan unless they have printed photos in their hands. If you've ever spent any time at a crop, you will see that not one single person there is scrapping ahead of the development of the pictures into hard copies. She may be buying supplies ahead of this moment, but she is not scrapping them.

Unless the photos are printed, fewer and fewer scrapbook pages are going to be made. Which is a crying shame, not just for the industry but for the magnificent folk art that this industry serves. In recent years, the scrapbooking industry has declined. I've seen that decline chalked up to many factors: digital scrapbooking, the 7-year cycle of any creative hobby, the proliferation of stores and supplies, too many trade shows, the transition from beginner to intermediate taking too much time and money, but I don't think any of these factors contributes to the problem as much as the ever-increasing number of un-printed photos.

What this industry needs to do, instead of inciting warring camps around CHA and PMA or worrying about the red herring of digital scrapbooking, is to focus with laser intensity and precision on getting our photos off computers and onto paper. This is a campaign that should have been started years ago, one which the industry cannot survive without, and one which will benefit absolutely everyone. From scrapbookers to retailers to manufacturers of scrapbooking supplies, inks, and photo paper we all are desperately in need of change here. Next time you talk to a colleague, next time you talk to a scrapbooker, next time you talk to a supplier or a buyer, you better find out what ideas they have for getting people to understand that their photos are not safe and that their scrapbooks won't happen if they leave the photos on their computers.

And then we all have to get together and put every idea into action, because an increase in the number of printed photos will be an instant and lasting benefit to the industry as a whole. I'm ready to receive, catalog, and disseminate all your ideas. Email me at cooke@scrapbookclubhouse.com or call me at 860-399-4443.

And let's get moving; we haven't got a minute to waste.

(Note: Agree with Sharon? Disagree? Send your thoughts to CLN at mike@clnonline.com.)



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