Interview with Stephen Rowe, Part II

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By: Christa Vogelius, CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow

Editor’s Note: This is the second of three posts serializing an interview between Christa Vogelius, the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in the A.S. Williams collection, and Stephen Rowe, author of From a Love of History: The A.S. Williams III Americana Collection at the University of Alabama. Read the first post here


From a Love of History

In the spring and summer of 2010, when the University of Alabama Libraries acquired the bulk of the collection at Eufaula in a joint purchase and gift, discussions to create a guide to what would become known as the A.S. Williams III Americana Collection first began. Dean of Libraries Louis Pitschmann approached Rowe about the possibility of authoring the guide during the collection’s move from Eufaula to Tuscaloosa at the end of June. Rowe expressed interest in the project, and in the fall of 2011, Dean Pitschmann and Rowe began discussing the timeline and layout of From a Love of History in earnest. By early November they had a proposal for the press with an outline of the book’s ten chapters. Once the proposal was accepted at the end of November, Rowe and the book’s photographer, Robin McDonald, met for what Rowe describes as “an intense week” in early December. Working with Nancy Dupree, Curator of the A.S. Williams III Americana Collection, Rowe picked out items for McDonald to arrange and photograph—books, images, manuscripts—and the result was over 100 images a day. The richly-illustrated From a Love of History would use over half of these 550 images in its final form.

The composition of the book followed a tight deadline that reveals Rowe’s personal dedication to the project. He began what he calls the “winnowing process” for the images and the composition of the accompanying text in January. In choosing and grouping images, he consulted with McDonald, who also arranged the layout for the book. The two already had a strong working relationship from their collaboration in 2010 on an article on the Eufaula Athenaeum Collection for Alabama Heritage, a journal for which McDonald does layout and photography. The images and the text of the book as a whole were completed within four months: they were in the hands of the press by May 10. Looking back at the experience, Rowe considers the book a labor of love.


From left to right: A.S. Williams III; John D. Johns, Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer of Protective Life Corporation; Stephen Rowe; and the Dean of Libraries, Louis Pitchmann

When Rowe discusses the book as a completed project, it is apparent that much of his dedication comes from a desire to honor the man behind the collection. His primary goal in writing the work was always “that Steve Williams liked it,” and the most difficult part of the book to write, the one that he “kept writing and throwing out,” was the introduction, a personal reflection on his years of working with Williams. Rowe discusses his decision in this section to refer to the collector by his first name or simply “Williams” as a motivated one: “I was kidding with Steve while he was down here the other day. I said, ‘You know, I did that because you’re not some multi-millionaire who decided to give up polo to collect books. You worked for what you made and you did this great thing.’ And I know a lot of people would think when you see a bunch of Roman numerals after someone’s name, ‘ Oh well, yes, I know that person wouldn’t have the time of day for me.’ He is not that guy, not by a long shot.” When, in the process of copyediting, the press replaced instances of Williams’ first name with the more formal title, Rowe argued successfully to have his original wording reinstated. Ultimately, he concludes, “I think the book looks very much like what I wanted it to look like, and what I think Steve Williams wanted it to look like.”

But the guide also aims at a broader audience for the collection, which is now fully accessible to the public and in the process of being catalogued and digitized. “There’s just a lot of really good stuff in there that I felt was sitting in a drawer somewhere, or a folder. Sometimes it was on exhibit, sometimes it wasn’t, and now it’s alive, it’s taken on a little life of its own.” 1054 copies of the book have been printed, over a fourfold increase from the number that the library originally hoped to release. With the larger printing, Rowe sees history faculty and students as an important audience, noting that “I would hope that virtually any of [the book’s] captions or any of [the book’s] images might be a starting point for somebody to do some research…There are some theses and dissertations in that collection. The manuscripts have not been fully mined yet.” Promising manuscripts include a small but significant collection of letters home from Union soldiers, and a 1840s diary by Reverend Stickney, thought to be the founder of an Episcopal school and church in Marion, Alabama.

The aspects of the collection that Rowe ultimately highlights, though, are not the high-profile national-interest items but the more local materials on Alabama history. When asked to name some resources that he would like all students at the University of Alabama to spend time with, he doesn’t name a well-known rarity like Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War (1866), but chooses instead four works of Alabama history: Albert Pickett’s History of Alabama (1851), William Bartram’s Travels (1791), Thomas Abernethy’s The Formative Period in Alabama, 1815-1828 (1922), and Thomas Woodward’s Reminisces (1859). These books, he says, “give you an idea of what this state is all about,” allowing readers to reflect on the Alabama of the present through its past, “when Alabama really became what it is today.” As he notes, “The Alabama history part of the collection is very significant, and is as deep in its way as any of the rest of them. It’s just not as flashy.”

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