Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Digging for Primary Sources (Research Part 3)

After familiarizing myself with my main character -- Henry Ford -- by reading several biographies, I have amassed a lengthy list of other sources that I need to get. Many of them are primary sources, which means they were created at the time Henry Ford was alive.  These documents are important because they give me a window into a person's life so I can see for myself what Ford was like, hear his voice, and come up with my own conclusions about his character and about the people around him.  Primary sources include letters, diaries, photographs, speeches, newspaper clippings, menus, recipes and receipts, as well as business reports, government census, birth certificates, etc. The list is endless.

Most of the information I'm looking for is housed at the Benson Ford Research Center in Dearborn, Michigan, so I give them a call and make an appointment. Most research libraries or archives want advanced notice. That way they can pull the files ahead of time. You don't want to waste valuable research minutes waiting empty-handed while they find the material.   Most facilities have an online catalog or finding aids so you can tell them exactly what you need. Tell them who you are and what your project is about. In my follow-up email I listed the kinds of information I needed: How Ford came up with the idea of a soybean car; how soybean plastic was created; what it looked like; smelled like; an anecdote from childhood that might explain his diet; etc.  I wanted the librarian to know that I wasn't just looking for statistics or PR material.

When I arrive at the Research Center it's a warm morning in August. Tourists line up for the Greenfield Village gates to open.  I want to go in too. I've never seen Edison's lab or Ford's childhood home,  But I hang a left and enter the Research Facility.   I place my bag and lunch in a locker in the hall, and carry my laptop, cell phone, pencil and notepad through the security system. These are typical restrictions for most archives. Some make you wear gloves when handling documents, too.
All Soybean Dinner 1934
The librarian has a cart loaded with all the soybean files. If I stop to read everything, it will take me weeks, so I use my phone to photograph pages, cite the source on my laptop, and note the documents that I would want photocopied by the librarian.  From 9-5 with a break for lunch, I work my way through most of the soybean files.  Before I leave, I consult with the librarian on a list of materials I want for the next day. I feel as exhausted as the folks who spent the day walking through Greenfield Village.

Back at the motel, I upload the images to my computer and check to see if they are readable or if I need to get a photocopy made.  I also look through more finding aids for anything I might have missed.

The second day, I am eager to see the scientist's notebooks from the soybean lab, but discover that they are just steno-pads filled with logged in information like weight, oil content and percentage of protein.  However, I do notice some telling doodles.  On the cover of the booklet from November, 1941 to Jan. 1942 is a sketch of two Nazi swastikas as if the doodler was trying to figure out which way it goes.  On the 1944 notebook is a bomber plane firing across the paper.  All the notebooks are heavily stained with soybean oil.

Going through the photographs takes longer. I linger over images of the 1934 World's Fair: of nattily clad mechanics working on pristine Ford engines; mermaid dancers on a stage; sections of road from the Apian Way, China's Silk Road, cobblestones from Europe, and log road from Boston.

I take a break for lunch and buy a ticket to Greenfield Village. Documents only tell you part of the story. I need to walk through Ford's world for a while.
Handwritten note from Ford.
Doesn't have anything to do with soybeans, but it's cool.

1 comment:

  1. As I am newer at this type of research, I find it really interesting and helpful to get such a detailed look into your process. Thanks for sharing!