Promotional image for #AskAnArchivist Day 2020 from the Society of American Archivists.
One day every October (American Archives Month), archivists flock to Twitter for #AskAnArchivist Day. The event, organized by the Society of American Archivists (SAA), allows archivists to explain what they do and answer questions from the public in real-time.
This year, four representatives from our Archives--Sr. Manager, Archives & Library, Brian Wilson; Reference Archivist Kathy Makas; Processing Archivist Janice Unger; and Processing Archivist Hilary Severyn--took shifts answering questions from The Henry Ford's Twitter account. Between the four of them, they covered topics ranging from the availability of research assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic to our Ford Motor Company records to mustache-related puns. Below are some highlights from the day's Q&A.
We are truly living in unprecedented times. On Friday, March 13, 2020, The Henry Ford closed its doors due to the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. We did not open them again until Thursday, July 2—and even then, only on certain days, with many new guidelines in place about masks, social distancing, and capacity, to protect our visitors and staff. None of us predicted that we would remain closed for 16 weeks—but then, there is much happening now in the world that would have been difficult to predict.
One of the many unusual things that happened over that four-month period is that the most-viewed section of our website was our Digital Collections. While our online collections typically get tens of thousands of views each month, they’ve always fallen well short of our “Visit” section—until COVID-19 shut our doors. Between mid-March and late June, visitors viewed artifacts in our Digital Collections about 285,000 times. This whetted our curiosity about what artifacts people were looking at during our closure, and why—so we decided to put a list together and take a closer look.
The Quadricycle was the third-most viewed artifact in our Digital Collections during our pandemic closure in 2020. / THF90760
One group of artifacts that was not on last year’s list, but that was highly viewed during our closure (and since), is items related to the challenging history of race in America. Given the nationwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, many Americans are seeking to broaden their understanding in this area, which might explain this uptick in interest. A slave collar, a “Whites Only” drinking fountain, a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood, and an Emancipation Day photograph are all artifacts on exhibit in “With Liberty and Justice for All” in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation illustrating this disturbing history—and all were sought out by hundreds to thousands of online visitors between mid-March and late June.
This slave collar was featured in an online article called “Why We Can’t Stop Thinking About George Floyd’s Neck.” / THF13425
Another group of items that seems pandemic-specific are documents and photographs from the World War II era. In George Washington Carver’s last agricultural bulletin, published in February 1942, he encourages Americans to consider wild plants (what many might call weeds) as an alternative to green vegetables, should the war cause shortages. In March, journalist Nicholas Kristof referenced our Willow Run expert set as an example of ramping up production in a short timeframe in a New York Timeseditorial about the coronavirus. Likely as a result, a B-24 Liberator bomber production flowchart and a photograph of a B-24 in flight made it into our top artifacts over this period. A “United We Win” poster speaks to both World War II and issues of race relations.
Ford Motor Company’s fast ramp-up of B-24 Liberator bomber production during World War II provides insight on the ramp-up of coronavirus testing and treatment supplies in 2020. / THF251440
The last pattern we noticed was the popularity of artifacts related to recent films, at a time when many Americans stayed at home and increased their movie watching. Three auto racing photos—including the single-most viewed item during our closure, this photograph of race car driver Ken Miles at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans—demonstrate the continuing popularity of Ford v Ferarri, the 2019 movie about that very race. This letter, allegedly from Clyde Barrow to Henry Ford, has been popular ever since last year, when Netflix released The Highwaymen, a movie about the race to apprehend Bonnie and Clyde. During our closure, it was the fifth-most viewed artifact in our online collections.
This portrait of Ken Miles at the 24 Hours of Le Mans Race in 1966 was the most-viewed artifact from our Digital Collections during our closure. / LeMans06-66_441
It’s interesting to see patterns in views of our digital artifacts that map so closely to what has been going on in the world. To see if you can find any additional patterns we missed, check out the entire list of the most-viewed digitized artifacts during our COVID-19 closure here. And check out our Digital Collections for yourself—you might just find something there of value to you during these strange times.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
In an ironic twist, one of the artifacts we were able to digitize remotely during the pandemic is this roll of toilet paper, on exhibit in Your Place in Time in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
If you’ve visited our Digital Collections lately, you may have noticed they now feature more than 95,000 digitized artifacts. We’ve previously written about the process we use to digitize artifacts—as you might suspect, it involves lots of close physical contact with other human beings and with the artifacts themselves. Right now, during the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, this is not possible: some of our digitization colleagues whose work requires campus access are on temporary unpaid leave, and others whose work is more computer-based continue working from our basements, dining rooms, and dens.
Still, between March 14 and May 22, we added almost 3,300 new artifacts to our Digital Collections—all in the 10 weeks since decamping from our offices. But how can we continue to add new items to our Digital Collections without access to the actual collections themselves?
A lot of the answer is infrastructure. We’ve been digitizing our collections in a consistent way for almost a decade now, and over those years have built out a robust system to support adding hundreds of new items to our Digital Collections every day. Our collections database is available to us from home, and we have automated processes in place to pick up new items daily. We can do research on items, and add this information to our database, from home. But what about the images?
A very modern-looking textile from a 1900-1901 sample book, digitized during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When we left campus, there were many objects we’d imaged in the last few months for ongoing projects that hadn’t yet been put online. We are continuing to work through this backlog, adding the images to our collections database and updating our cataloging so they can be reviewed and flagged for online use. Some notable additions in this category since mid-March are more than 700 Hallmark ornaments from the sizeable collection we acquired last year, nearly 200 items digitized through the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship (including trade cards and textile sample books), and more than 150 artifacts digitized through a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
In addition, we have a number of collections that were already in digital format, whether natively or digitized by the collector, when they came to us. A sizeable example is the Dave Friedman Collection, which was partially scanned by Dave Friedman before being donated to us. There are now more than more than 32,000 auto racing photographs and documents from the Friedman collection in our Digital Collections—including the more than 1,000 we’ve added remotely.
One of the many Dave Friedman Collection auto racing images we've added to our Digital Collections during the pandemic. This one shows the Chevrolet Corvette C1 driven by Dave MacDonald in the Production Sports Car Race before the 4th Annual Grand Prix for Sports Cars in Riverside, California, in 1961.
We also are lucky, as an institution in its 91st year of existence, to have a sizeable backlog of older images that are often quite acceptable (or can be made acceptable, by some strategic Photoshop work) for online access. We always prefer to get a new image of an artifact when possible—but during the pandemic, that has not been possible. So we’re combing through the existing images we have, whether those are scans of old black-and-white images from our first few decades, 20th century slides that were scanned later on, or images taken on 35mm film that have been transferred to digital format.
In this last category, artifacts with legacy images, to date we’ve had a couple of top priorities: 1) artifacts being utilized for our extensive series of online content and programming, and 2) artifacts that are on display in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation—since you can’t see these in person right now, you’ll at least be able to see them digitally! Since we left campus, we’ve added nearly 200 objects on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation to our Digital Collections, bringing the total number of artifacts on exhibit in the museum that you can also see in our Digital Collections to more than 2,300—check them all out here. The recently added artifacts are mostly in Your Place in Time and Made in America, ranging from a Coty face powder box to an eight-track tape of Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. Next, we plan to tackle some of the many artifacts on exhibit in Greenfield Village, as well as items brought into our collection in the last couple of decades.
Weaving You Can Wear, one of many books in Your Place in Time digitized recently from existing images.
Across all these categories, there are thousands of artifacts we can add to our Digital Collections without access to our collections—and we will continue working through them until we can safely return to The Henry Ford’s campus and are back up to full capacity. In the meantime, we invite you to dig into our Digital Collections to revisit your old favorites and maybe turn up some new surprises.
If you aren’t sure where to start, you might check out some Expert Sets we recently completed. Our curators selected artifact highlights from our collection in a number of focus areas, namely:
Tracy K. Smith is the current Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, commonly known as the US Poet Laureate. She is only the fourth African American to hold this post (or its predecessor, the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress) since its establishment in 1937, following Robert Hayden (1976–78), Gwendolyn Brooks (1985–86), and Rita Dove (1993–95 and 1999–2000).
Smith’s term as Poet Laureate comes at a particularly auspicious time, as the current Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden (2016– ), is both the first woman and the first African American ever to hold that post—and she was nominated to her office by the first African American president, Barack Obama.
All of these offices had previously been held primarily or solely by white men, and with the new officeholders have come new perspectives. In Smith’s case, this began with her Poet-Laureate project, American Conversations: Celebrating Poems in Rural Communities, an outreach effort where she envisioned “poems might be a way of leaping past small-talk and collapsing the distance between strangers.” It continues in her latest book of poetry, Wade in the Water (Graywolf Press, 2018).
A book of poetry might seem at first glance to be a strange way to bring the past forward, tying historical events to topics at the forefront of our national conversation today. As Smith notes in the introduction to American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, an anthology of poetry she edited, the very nature of a poem – from the layout of words on a page to the vivid, emotion-inducing language used – can “call our attention to moments when the ordinary nature of experience changes—when the things we think we know flare into brighter colors, starker contrasts, strange and intoxicating possibilities.” Poetry can help us process and make sense of complicated issues, and allow us the empathy to see things from someone else’s perspective.
In Wade in the Water, Smith takes this cultural and historical perspective one step further, with poems that use historical documents, including letters from slaveholders and statements of African Americans enlisted in the Civil War, to shed light on today. Some of these are “erasure” poems, where Smith relies solely on text from these documents—but removes portions to induce a new perspective for the reader. “Declaration,” for example, removes words from the Declaration of Independence:
Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. --taken Captive on the high Seas to bear—
The words she chooses to include are reminiscent of the forced journey of slaves to America and highlight the day-to-day experiences of African Americans as in contrast to the high ideals of the original document.
In the lengthy poem, “I Will Tell You the Truth about This, I Will Tell You All About It,” Smith again shares the direct words of African Americans who enlisted to fight in the Civil War, as well as their families, “arranged in such a way as to highlight certain of the main factors affecting blacks during the Civil War….” Excerpts from the letters and documents use the original spelling of the writers (pointing out the literacy levels of African Americans at the time), and shed light on the ways the war impacted African American families—many of which concerns still sound familiar today. The initial section of the poem is drawn from a November 21, 1864, letter from Mrs. Jane Welcome to Abraham Lincoln:
The poems that use only Smith’s own words also reference the past as a way to understand the present. In “Refuge,” the narrator tries to create empathy within herself for an immigrant, a refugee, by seeing that person as her mother during the Montgomery Bus Boycott:
Empathy is clearly a key theme running through both Smith’s Poet-Laureate project and her poetry. Asked what “the greatest challenge of our time” is in an August 24, 2018, interview with the Financial Times, Smith answered, “Love. Maybe a better word is compassion. In particular, we have to learn a new way of looking at the people we fear; people we have socially acceptable ways of dismissing or condemning for their own misery or misfortune.” She invites us to use our own American history as that new lens in order to better understand others, the world we live in today, and not least, ourselves.
Ellice Engdahl is Manager, Digital Collections and Content, at The Henry Ford.
If you’ve walked through “With Liberty and Justice for All” in Henry Ford Museum, you’re familiar with the long and complicated history of social transformation, including civil rights and race relations, in America. Some artifacts, like the Rosa Parks Bus, are primary sources in this story, but we also hold collections that offer a more oblique take, such as about 100 photo negatives we’ve just digitized relating to five days of civil unrest in Detroit in July 1967.
The images come from Detroit Edison, which was charged with the very normal work of restoring electricity under very abnormal conditions. While the photos primarily document the power company’s work in the wake of the unrest, the events of the preceding days and their aftermath are omnipresent, as you can see in this image. We undertook this digitization project as part of our participation in “Detroit 67: Looking Back to Move Forward,” “a multi-year community engagement project of the Detroit Historical Society that brings together diverse voices and communities around the effects of an historic crisis to find their place in the present and inspire the future.”
During 2017, we shared more collections-based stories related to the complex roots of, and reactions to, Detroit 67, in keeping with our mission to inspire people to help shape a better future. For now, visit our Digital Collections to browse all of the July 1967 Detroit Edison images.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford. This post was last updated in July 2020.
The Henry Ford’s digitization and digital content teams get together for a 10-minute stand-up meeting every morning, and those meetings consistently spawn intriguing conversations about the amazing, rare, awesome, and significant items in our collections. Sometimes our discussions turn to objects that make sense within the context of their time and place, but which might seem strange or unsettling today.
In honor of the Halloween season, we’ve put together an Expert Set of some of our favorite such artifacts, selected by our staff. For example, Curator of Communication & Information Technology Kristen Gallerneaux selected this poster, shown above, featuring magician Howard Thurston and a bevy of supernatural figures.
Visit the Expert Set in our Digital Collections to see more—if you dare... Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
This summer, The Henry Ford hosted Meredith Pollock as our 2016 Edsel B. Ford Design History Fellow. Her work here investigated the materials in our collections related to Edsel Ford’s philanthropy, and turned up a great deal of information on the kinds of charities to which Edsel donated.
One thing that caught our eye, particularly in light of this year’s National Park Service centennial, is Edsel’s ongoing relationship with America’s national parks. We’ve just digitized a number of letters, photographs, and other artifacts that help explain how Edsel supported the park system, including this certificate reappointing Edsel to the Isle Royale National Park Commission.
If you know a bit about The Henry Ford, you probably know that one of our areas of expertise is automobile racing. Along with many artifacts, we hold vast amounts of archival materials on the topic, including the Dave Friedman Collection of hundreds of thousands of racing images, among other materials. We’ve just digitized a grouping of nearly 500 images from the 1968 American Road Race of Champions (ARRC) held at Riverside, California—bringing the total number of images we’ve digitized from this collection to over 20,000.
From November 20, 2016, through March 5, 2017, our colleagues at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) are presenting an exhibition called Bitter|Sweet: Coffee, Tea & Chocolate. The exhibit will trace the impact of these beverages in Europe, beginning in the late 16th century. One set from The Henry Ford’s collections—this late 18th century tea service—will be on loan to the DIA, helping visitors understand what a formal tea setting would have looked like.
As we learned more about the exhibition, we saw additional parallels between the DIA’s goals and our own collections’ artifacts and themes, and ways our collections can extend the messages of the exhibit. The DIA will help explain how these new tastes spawned a design revolution and entirely new industries devoted to creating specialized tableware; our Made in America exhibit in Henry Ford Museum covers how British innovations in power and production machinery made way for the increasingly precise manufacture of porcelain and other mass-produced goods to support these needs, beginning the Industrial Revolution. Bitter|Sweet will focus on Europe, but The Henry Ford’s collections explore how the craze for these new beverages spread to America—including the tale of early American artisan and entrepreneur Paul Revere.
The exhibit will be interactive, allowing guests to explore via all five of their senses, which is similar in approach to Greenfield Village—for instance, being able to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of historic chocolate-making in our Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village program. And last, coffee, tea, and chocolate all remain popular today, allowing us to bring the past forward and show how these historic drinks fit into life in modern America.
Over the course of the exhibit, we’ll be adding links to this post that explore some of these themes in our collections. We hope these will provide a deeper understanding of the impact these three once-exotic drinks have had, from the earliest days of our country’s history right on through to the takeout coffee in your hand.
Earlier this year, The Henry Ford launched a brand-new, award-winning institutional website. Part of this project—but a big part!—is a completely reimagined Digital Collections. The Henry Ford has been scaling up its collections digitization efforts since 2010, and you’ll find tens of thousands of artifacts available online (some of the most recent additions here), with many new and enhanced features on the new site. Though we hope the new Digital Collections experience is intuitive and easy to use, we wanted to highlight some of the features for those who might not yet have had a chance to dig in and explore.
One of the best things about our Digital Collections is that they are now fully integrated with the rest of our website. This means that any search you try on our website will return results from our educational resources, our Digital Collections, and the rest of the site, in convenient tabbed format.
Digital Collections artifact results from a site search on thehenryford.org.
If you’re specifically interested in our artifacts, you can easily perform collections-specific searches from the homepage of our Digital Collections. By entering a word or phrase in the single box, you will search three kinds of records—individual artifacts, archival collections, and expert sets, with each group of results returning in its own tab. For artifacts, you can limit your search results by date, the type of artifact (objects, photos, documents, videos/film, or audio), the location of the artifact (Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village, the Benson Ford Research Center, or not on exhibit), the special multimedia types available for that artifact (360-degree views, audio, or video), and whether there are high-resolution images available for automated download for a service fee. Search results can be sorted by relevance, title, or date.
Search results from a search from the homepage of our Digital Collections. If you need to get even more detailed, you can, with one of my favorite new features on the Digital Collections site, Advanced Search. While the Digital Collections homepage search features a single box and returns results based on relevance, the more sophisticated advanced search lets you combine any of 20 different parameters, such as collection title, color, material, or creator name. Want to find orange automobiles? Or velvet dresses? Or photographs from the Fair Lane Papers collection? With Advanced Search, you can! An online help guide explains the many different fields and provides sample values for each to assist you in constructing your search.
Once you’ve found an artifact you want to check out, you’ll notice that the look of each artifact record has changed. You will now see more information about each object, and it is easier and faster to flip through the images of each object—or zoom in to see fine details. Some objects may include 360-degree views, audio, and/or video. Each record features a “contact us about this artifact” button, through which you can e-mail our collections experts in the Benson Ford Research Center to ask questions or provide additional information or corrections to our data.
The look of an artifact record in our new Digital Collections.
Many Digital Collections records now display related artifacts, so while viewing something like the record for a historic photo of the Autogiro, you’ll be able to easily jump to the Autogiro itself. “Related content,” such as a story or video we’ve created including that object or other objects from our collection, will also appear where appropriate (see the record for our Apple 1 for examples). Artifacts may be shared via Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, or as “artifact cards,” short, portable versions of collections records that you can embed on your blog or website. Social sharing links and instructions for using artifact cards are available via a link on every collections record.
Archival collection records are brand-new to our Digital Collections. Previously, you needed to use our library catalog in order to find broad information about specific archival collections. Our new site allows us to include information from archival finding aids alongside the records that represent individual items from those collections. We will continue to add these archival records as collections are acquired and processed.
A record for one of our many archival collections.
Expert sets have been totally overhauled. They still collect groups of artifacts selected by our collections experts on specific themes, but are much more robust and visually appealing. As noted above, they are also searchable directly from the Digital Collections homepage. But you don’t have to be an expert to create your own set… Anyone can! Just click the “Add to Set” button on any artifact record and log in or create an account. It is also easy to share both expert sets and user sets via Facebook, Twitter, or e-mail.
One of hundreds of artifact Expert Sets created by our collections staff.
Another notable new feature of the site is that many of our collections images are available for immediate high-resolution download for a service fee. Anywhere you see the BUY icon on an image (or use the relevant search limiter), you can purchase that image for personal or educational use in accordance with the terms of service listed on the site. We will continue to add more purchasable images to our Digital Collections over time. Lower-res images may be downloaded without a fee.
Lastly, if you ever tried to use our old Digital Collections site on a smartphone or tablet, you might have found it a frustrating experience. The new Digital Collections site is completely responsive, and all features will work equally well on your phone, tablet, or desktop computer.
Please try out our Digital Collections, if you haven't already, and feel free to contact us if you have any questions or comments about your experience. Our hope is that our new Digital Collections makes it easier and more fun for you to find, enjoy, and share the many treasures of The Henry Ford!
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.