History Detective: Author and Historian Cynthia T. Harris Sees the Beauty – and Importance – of Dusty Old Pictures and Faded Yearbooks

   By Sally Deering

History Detective Cynthia Harris
Cynthia T. Harris

Imagine a collection of written documents that date back to 1629 before America was even a country, or a series of photos chronicling Jersey City life in the 40s and 50s? Then there’s the “Douglass Map of 1841” the first of a genre of maps of Jersey City depicting property owners and their land lots.  Cynthia T. Harris manages these treasures housed in the New Jersey Room of the Jersey City Free Public Library on Jersey Avenue in Jersey City. The New Jersey Room holds some of the most important documents in the history of New Jersey and specifically Hudson County and Harris its very own history detective.

As Manager of the New Jersey Room, Harris oversees the cataloguing – and deciphering – of documents and photographs housed in the archives on the top floor. There, Harris and her staff of librarians – John Beekman and Daniel Klein, library assistants and volunteers assist visitors, especially those researching  their family trees and searching for clues to events that are extremely personal to their lives.

“We had Rosie O’Donnell stop by because her great-grandfather died in Jersey City in 1903,” Harris says,” and (the TV show) ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ contacted us to come and film Rosie.”

Then there was the time a woman called the New Jersey Room because she had been looking for her grandmother’s grave, but didn’t know exactly where her grandmother died.

“We had her grandmother in our database,” Harris says. “When I told her she started to cry and said, ‘I was looking for 10 years for my grandmother.’ We have different databases for Hudson County obits, birth announcements, marriage announcements and high school graduations.”

Harris is on a mission to collect every year book from every high school in Hudson.

“We have 1, 160 yearbooks so far,” Harris says, “and of that 1160, there are photocopied versions because people don’t want to give up their yearbooks. When St. Mary’s announced they were closing, I asked if we could archive their yearbooks and I’m only missing 4 from their entire run. We need ‘66, ‘67, ‘68 and ‘70.”

Sometimes Harris helps people find missing pieces to their past as was the case of a woman whose uncle’s mother was murdered by his father when the family lived in Jersey City.  He was a boy then and after it happened, no one told him the truth of what really happened. He never even knew where his mother was buried.

“We had articles on microfilm on the murder,” Harris says. “She was buried in Jersey City in Harsimus Cemetery.”

The woman, whose uncle’s mother was murdered, came to the New Jersey Room from her home in Pennsylvania to thank Harris personally for her help.

“She thanked me for giving her uncle closure after 70 years,” Harris says. “Helping people put the puzzle pieces together; it’s a very heartwarming part of the job.”

Harris has been at the New Jersey Room since 2001 and she still delights in some of the special treasures in the collection like books that date from 1629; and negatives of a group of photographs taken by Stan McNulty, Jersey City’s resident photographer in the 1940s. Probably the most important document in the New Jersey Room’s collection, Harris says, is the Douglass Map of 1841, the first of a genre of maps depicting the demarcation of the Heights, Bergen-Lafayette and other sections of Jersey City.

Jersey City history is a passion for Harris who was born in the Heights and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education from St. Peter’s College in Jersey City and a Master’s Degree in Library Science from Rutgers School of Information and Library Science in New Brunswick.

She poured her passion for history into the book she co-wrote with professional photographer Leon Yost also of Jersey City. “Changing Jersey City: A History in Photographs” is a beautifully illustrated book that tells the story of New Jersey’s second largest city in archival pictures and text.  Harris and Yost worked on the book for 3 years, using many of the photos and writing the text based on documents from the New Jersey Room’s archives.

“Once we had all the pictures, it took us about a year to do the digging on the history,” Harris says. “We had a picture of a boxing match at Paulus Hook and all I had to do was go to the microfilm. It was a lot of research in the microfilm.”

At the New Jersey Room, donations of historical materials continue to pour in. When Jersey City sold the Jersey City Medical Center, the city donated all of the blueprints of renovations to the hospital done through the years to the New Jersey Room.

“It’s wonderful,” Harris says. “There’s so much to be done and so much to be organized.”

The New Jersey Room

Jersey City Free Public Library

472 Jersey Avenue

Jersey City

(201) 547-4503


  Cynthia T Harris new book Changing Jersey City

“Changing Jersey City: A History in Photographs,”

By Cynthia T. Harris and Leon Yost is available at www.amazon.com.  ($29.99)