Interviews with Authors: Images of America – South River by Stephanie Bartz
A picture tells a thousand words, as the saying goes. With its ambitious goal to preserve and present history, a book series called “Images of America” chronicles various periods in the history of American towns. These books are not only delightful to browse, but also inspire reflections on the past for a community: where they come from and how far they got.
The volume highlighting South River was co-authored by Stephanie Bartz, Government Resources & Information Services Librarian at Rutgers-New Brunswick, memorializing her contributions to the South River Historical & Preservation Society as a volunteer for more than 20 years, a perfect candidate to interview in our Books We Write series.
BWR: The first question that comes to mind with every single published book is the “why,” which is also the question that anyone planning to write a book proposal should face. Why this topic, why now, and why this author? Can you tell us what inspired you to share a fragment of the image collection of the South River Historical & Preservation Society?
SB: The executive board of the society had been talking about putting a book together for some time. We had a much more ambitious project in mind but doing an “Images” book had been on the table for many years. Since we know that people love pictures and we had a collection that was perfect for the project, we decided to switch our focus from a text heavy book to one that focused on images. I volunteered to lead the project and was joined by two others with deep family connections to South River. It was natural for me to take the lead not only because I’m the society’s archivist and have the easiest access to the collections, but also because of my access to the research resources provided by Rutgers University Libraries.
BWR: It is always a tough job to make choices when it comes to sharing items from a large collection. How did you and your co-authors decide on selection criteria?
SB: There were several factors involved in the selection. We decided fairly early on to put our book together so that it could be used like a walking tour, so we chose photos that could represent the different sections of town and tell a story. We also tried to include images that portrayed something unique or with an interesting history. The quality of the original print was the final deciding factor. The photos we used were from the late 1800s and early 1900s and were glued into a scrapbook. As you can imagine, some of the more than 400 images were better than others.
BWR: The book was published a few years ago. What was the initial reception in the community and beyond?
SB: We were amazed by the reception the book got in the local community and from others with an interest in South River. When it first came out, we had a local event that packed the South River Museum with people who wanted to get a copy of the book as soon as it came out. They started arriving before we were really ready for them and many stayed after they got their books. We also filled mail order requests and made special arrangements for people who couldn’t get to the event to pick up copies. I honestly don’t know how many books we signed and sold that day and in the days that followed, but the interest the book generated definitely made the work of putting it together worthwhile. On the day the book came out, they were already asking when we might do another one with photographs from more recent years.
BWR: South River is portrayed as a representative of ethnic and cultural diversity so typical of American towns of the turn of the century. As someone who has been living there for a long time, can you tell how or if it’s changing nowadays as opposed to what you are showing us with the images in the book?
SB: In the period when the photographs were taken, South River had large Polish, German, Hungarian, and Russian populations. We still have those, but we’ve expanded to include quite a few other groups and the focus has shifted away from Eastern Europe and Russia. The 1900 census identified 19 different places of birth for South River’s foreign born population, including “born at sea.” Poland was at the top of the list. 100 years later there were 53 countries. The top three were Portugal, Brazil, and Mexico.
BWR: I particularly enjoyed looking at the images depicting people, individuals, couples, groups, adults, and children. You even found some with pets too. No one smiles in these pictures, a huge difference from our social media photos. Is that typical of the era?
SB: I read an interesting article about smiles in photographs. It seems that they didn’t become common until the 1920s and 1930s. The explanation I’d always heard was that early photographs took a comparatively long time to capture so people posed with expressions that could be maintained for an extended period. While that’s probably true to an extent, I find the idea that people modeled their behavior on what they saw in painted portraits an intriguing alternative. Even the Mona Lisa smile isn’t much of a smile, is it?
BWR: I heard about the time capsule. I believe it was a “thing” in a certain period of time in the 20th century. Can you tell us some details about the one in South River?
SB: South River’s time capsule is a six foot long stainless steel tube about seven inches in diameter. It was originally buried in 1970 for South River’s 250th anniversary. It was moved to the front of the South River Museum in 2013 and was supposed to be dug up and opened in 2020. The arrival of COVID ended those plans, but we did finally have the event in September 2021. It’s fascinating to see what the people of 1970 wanted to pass on. The tube was jam packed from one end to the other with South River specific memorabilia, publications from 1970, and more generic items that I guess they thought represented the time period. We pulled out everything from a set of false eyelashes to a mask that had been worn in South River during the 1918 influenza epidemic. We weren’t able to save everything because there was fairly extensive water damage, but it was all documented and I created an online exhibit to showcase all of it regardless of final disposition.
BWR: How do you like your volunteer work at the South River Historical & Preservation Society? I am most interested in your motivation to start and then hold out for such a long time.
SB: I honestly never intended to volunteer for the society. I went to my first meeting in 1999 just after the museum opened. I didn’t know anyone, but I was interested because my husband’s family has been in South River since the late 1800s. The group coaxed me into agreeing to be the secretary for the next year and things just grew from there. If I’d been doing the same thing for all these years, I may not have continued so long, but there’s always a new challenge. Working on the time capsule opening and creating the related library display and the digital exhibit were the most recent of them. I also love looking at old pictures, researching local history, and imagining what things were like in the past. Working with the society gives me plenty of reasons and opportunities to do that. There’s always more to learn.
BWR: Collecting, preserving, and organizing items from the past must come with challenges, let alone sharing them. How did the nature of your work change over time with expectations dictated by the internet?
SB: When I started volunteering we had a fairly substantial collection of artifacts, but no system for organizing them or maintaining records about them. A consultant suggested that we set up a paper system but after some research we opted to invest in a software solution. That was in 2002. Over the years we’ve been able to catalog newly received items and even digitize some of them, but because the South River Museum had no Internet access, there was a limit to how much we could easily share. Not long before the pandemic we finally got Internet and this year we changed to an online system. It’s a huge step for us. We spent much of the year setting up standard vocabularies that we hadn’t had in place before and doing record cleanup, but it’s made our cataloging process easier and includes an exhibit component that lets us share our collections more broadly.
BWR: What project are you working now and how do you find time for it in addition to your demanding, full time job?
SB: I always have a list of projects on tap so I can work on whichever one I’m in the mood for. The main one right now is collecting items for the new time capsule we hope to bury next year. I’m also looking at going back to the timeline I started several years ago. So far, it’s about 30 pages long with an additional 20 pages of references. We know a lot about South River history, but finding sources for what we know, or think we know, can be a challenge. The other thing I’m considering is figuring out how to make a walking tour. We’ve wanted to have one for a long time, and just recently I ran across a website that I think might work for it.
As for finding the time, I’ve been known to call it my second full-time job, but most of the time it’s also fun. And some of my closest friends are people that I’ve met because of it. I regularly spend off-work hours and even vacation time doing projects for the society. It’s an avocation that gives me a great deal of enjoyment and satisfaction.
BWR: A personal question, if I may. I love the fact that you share your husband’s contributions to the project in the book, especially in the light of the adage “Behind every great man there’s a great woman” (desperately trying to give women credit for their hidden talents). Publishing a book, just like many other great achievements, takes a village, including support from family and friends, which often goes unacknowledged. How exactly did your husband help?
SB: Early on in our discussions about the arrangement of the book and what kind of chapters we were going to divide it into, my husband told me that what we were considering would be boring. I think that was an eye opener for all three authors. He suggested that it would be much more interesting if we arranged the chapters around sections of town and made it more like a walking tour than just a group of unrelated photographs. We used his idea and I think the book is stronger because of it. His other contribution was patience. Since I was the project lead, I ended up spending much of my free time on it during the months it took us to put everything together. He gave me his attention when I needed it and left me alone when I needed that. When we had a house full of people, he calmly explained my disappearing into my office to work on the project. I was very pleased to have one of my co-authors include his contribution in the acknowledgments.
BWR: Thank you for your time. On behalf of the Books We Read team, I wish you many more rewarding years of work at the South River Historical & Preservation Society.
Art librarian Megan Lotts recently published a new book entitled Advancing a Culture of Creativity in Libraries: Programming and Engagement. It gave us the idea to launch a new interview series about titles that Books We Read affiliates have written or are currently working on. See more in the series below.