Should We Kill the Yearbook?

Slate's Culture Blog
June 28 2011 3:48 PM

Should We Kill the Yearbook?

Eileen Reynolds of Book Bench points us to a CNNMoney article on "the death of the old school yearbook." According to figures from the research firm IBISWorld, yearbook publishers have seen their sales decline by 4.7 percent per annum over the past few years.

This isn't exactly a new story (or a new headline) and the trend isn't so surprising: Those fat hardcovers, full of cringe-worthy headlines and embarrassing wardrobe choices, can be expensive for schools to produce and for students to buy. According to one CNN-quoted entrepreneur whose company makes electronic, customizable, print-on-demand yearbooks, one school in San Francisco was regularly losing $2,000 a year on unsold volumes enough to buy the school five new computers.

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Economics aside, the notion of bounding up your memories in a time capsule (or, rather, the memories the yearbook committee has deemed "significant" to the student body as a whole) has started to seem laughably quaint in the always-documenting, constantly-archiving Facebook era.  

Personally, I loved preparing for my appearance in my senior yearbook. I used to keep a little notebook in mybackpack; for months and months, I kept one ear cocked for lofty-sounding lines and earnestly scribbled them down, hoping to find just the right song lyric to run underneath my photo. (Happily, I went with the Cure and not the Dave Matthews Band.) I carefully chose a strand of black beads to wear above my regulation black wrap-style top, thinking they projected the right balance of edge and class I wanted to be remembered for. I spent a half-hour getting my hair to flip the right way.

But that was almost 15 years ago. As Nick Paumgarten notes in his article on online dating from this week's New Yorker, we create these kinds of "curated and stylized" versions of ourselves every day now. Do the acts of selecting a quotation, a hairstyle, a piece ofjewelry, or a series of photos for the back pages for posterity mean the same thing to an18-year-old today? Will they take the ritual as seriously as we did and if not, what's the point?

Reynolds notes, rightly, that a yearbook isn't Facebook, since the former is a time capsule and the latter an unending, ever revisable flowof data, one that could theoretically stretch from middle school through your death from old age. But yearbooks aren't the only teenage time capsules we leave behind. I may have come of age in the pre-social media Dark Ages, but even then, my friends and I were constantly documenting and preserving our lives swapping our class photos and filing them away in little plastic Hello Kitty wallets, hoarding letters and notes, hanging up our corsages to dry. I have piles of mix tapes copied from friends. Even if I never had a yearbook, I'd have plenty of fly-in-amber ephemera to remember those gawky, hormonal years. And the love letter, passed along in a dark rehearsal hall, is more moving to me now than a string of well wishes written on an arbitrary day in June.

All that being said, I think Reynolds has one slam-dunk argument for keeping the yearbook around. As she writes,

the yearbook, along with the high-school newspaper, provides one of the very first opportunities for the budding journalist to try her hand at publishing. There are stories to write,pages to lay out, ads to sell, and, of course, photographs to take ... I like to think that the students who [worked on my schools' yearbooks] learned something about the staggering amount of work that goes into putting together a large-scale publication. Finishing on deadline is one thing; feeling proud of what you've made is quite another.

The yearbook as a hands-on, pre-professional exercise, I can totally get behind. But as a nostalgia item collecting dust on my bookshelf, I'm not so sure.

Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.