The Vanishing “Album”: from Blank, to White, to Invisible

Here's another example of a word drifting away from its roots as a result of technological change.

In the seventeenth century Europeans began carrying with them little blank books into which their friends and acquaintances could write poems, quotations, sayings, signatures, etc. They were called “albums” (derived from a Latin word designating a list of names inscribed on a tablet).

When photography became popular, scrapbooks into which photos were pasted came to be called “albums” as well, a usage which persists in the digital realm today to describe collections of images.

When sets of 78 RPM records began to be released in paper sleeves bound like pages into cardboard covers, the word “album” was used to describe collections in this format. The records of that time lasted 3-5 minutes, and a longer classical work had to be divided over several discs. Popular multi-tune recordings were also issued in this format.

Such collections were also issued in paper sleeves loosely enclosed in a cardboard box. Though the sleeves were no longer bound into “pages” these were still called “albums.”

For a fascinating look at old record albums, see this page on The Remington Site.

When 45 RPM records were developed, there were also much smaller albums in that format.

But when the 33 1/3 RPM long play (LP) format replaced 78s, the word “album” lost all connection with its bound book roots. It came to mean only “a collection of recorded tracks.” Of course there were double albums and multi-disc sets, but the word “album” was no longer thought of as referring to an object with pages.

This shift was perpetuated with the advent of the CD.

Now we have downloadable digital “albums” with no physical form whatsoever, and popular music critics fret about the decline of the album format in an age when most listeners prefer to collect individual songs.

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