Preserving the Past One Day at a Time

Diane and her partner Denny Smith discuss future projects for their business.

Diane Janowski loves a good book. In fact, the older the book, the better. Since 2007, Janowski has run the New York History Review Press from her downtown Elmira home, publishing transcribed historical diaries, regional histories, picture books, calendars and collections of Victorian sheet music.

Historical maps of Elmira and original art line the walls of the house she shares with her partner, Denny Smith. Tucked away in one corner, amid papers, photographs and miscellaneous books, is a small office where the History Review Press brings the past back to life for future generations.

After graduating from Elmira College with a degree in art, Janowski worked as a picture framer, and then for the Chemung County Historical Society where she edited the Chemung History Journal. “It was a very natural progression to what I do now,” she said. In 2007 she started reprinting
at-risk books.

“These are books that are possibly the only copy left. They might have very acidic paper that has discolored over time, or they may be crumbling. Sometimes they just weren’t popular when they were first published and so were never reprinted.” She scans the books page by page and cleans up the scans using PhotoShop. She also does all of the research and the cover designs while Smith handles the marketing and takes any necessary photos.

Sourcing “new” materials

Part of the fun is finding books to publish. Each morning finds Janowski scouring websites looking for more books. “I find local diaries on eBay and contact the families. It’s surprising that people will sell off family histories, but they do.” The Library of Congress website is another place to find old books. If something looks interesting, she’ll pursue it. “If it’s about New York State, we’ll consider publishing it,” she said.

Sometimes, the diaries are handwritten in pencil and faded from time. Janowski often uses a magnifying glass to make sure she gets the words right. And then there are other challenges. She is currently working on Lina’s Cookbook, written by an aunt to teach her newly married niece to cook. The cookbook is written in Old German so it needs to be translated into modern German and then into English. “I speak German, so it’s not too hard, but deciphering handwriting in a foreign language can be difficult,” she said.

“Diaries are interesting, especially the teenage ones,” observed Smith. “They are simple and beautiful and show a slice of life. The writers just do everyday things. At the end of each diary, we show the writer’s grave and tell where the person died.” For each diary, Janowski lists the names mentioned by the writer and figures out the genealogy involved. Each entry of the diary is typed and then the handwritten page is scanned at the bottom of the printed page, so the reader can see the original as well.

Many of the historical photos used in the picture books come from the Eleanor Barnes Library. Barnes was a local woman who had amassed a large number of images of Elmira. She also had numerous postcards, books and pieces of sheet music. Her son found Janowski and passed along the collection.

The sheet music was inspiration for another series of books. “I found there were a lot of Victorian era songs written about New York State,” Janowski said, “so we have collections for Upstate New York and Central New York.” Other books include wedding songs and Christmas songs and even songs about Pennsylvania. To accompany many of the sheet music collections, she has recorded CDs of the music under the name of the George Bailey Orchestra, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Jimmy Stewart character in the film It’s a Wonderful Life.

New windows on the past

Another part of Janowski’s publishing efforts is the online journal, New York History Review, which publishes articles about local history by authors from around the state. Virtually any topic is welcome. A hard copy of the journal is produced annually, containing all of the online articles published that year.

The website for the New York History Review Press, www.newyorkhistoryreview.com, contains information on Janowski’s various publications and recordings. It also has links to related projects, such as a trip Janowski took to Germany and Poland to discover more about her family, and a 2001 project with Smith photographing everyday life in Pointe Coupée, Louisiana, at the turn of the century.

In a culture that seemingly has little regard for the past, Janowski has found herself on a mission: “For me it’s the preservation of something that quite possibly would be gone without my help.”


by Kevin Cummings