Rachel MacDonald: Librarian to Henry Ford

Did you know Henry Ford had his own personal librarian? Rachel MacDonald joined Ford Motor Company in 1925 to catalog objects acquired by Henry Ford for the educational center and history museum he envisioned–the Edison Institute, what we know today as The Henry Ford. She stayed on to build up a library of 25,000 volumes, including a complete set of the Little Orphan Annie comic strip, a favorite of her boss. She also collected, on Henry’s behalf, volumes of Noah Webster’s dictionaries and the McGuffey readers, and she started a compilation of verified Henry Ford quotations, among other useful resources. Many of these materials were transferred to the archives shortly after Henry Ford’s death. These materials, which became part of the Ford Motor Company Archives, were later donated by the company to The Henry Ford, in 1964, and form part of our collection today.

Actor Mickey Rooney and Henry Ford

Actor Mickey Rooney and Henry Ford at Menlo Park Laboratory, Greenfield Village, 1940. (Object ID P.188.27104.A, Image ID THF98671.)

MacDonald’s first library at Ford was in the Highland Park plant. There she met visiting friends of Henry Ford including Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver, actor Mickey Rooney, and author Damon Runyon, when they paid calls on Henry, who thirsted after interesting conversation. Mickey Rooney, who came to Dearborn to film a movie about Edison’s life, was a particular favorite of Henry’s, who enjoyed the young actor’s energy and high spirits.

Ford Engineering Laboratory Layout,

Ford Engineering Laboratory Layout, Dearborn, Michigan, circa 1924.This building was completed in December 1924 and still stands today on Oakwood Boulevard in Dearborn. Note the space for the “Dance Room” in the bottom right corner of the building plan.(Object ID P.O.9757, Image ID THF98510.)

As time went on, Ford’s aides increasingly limited access to the mogul, even going so far as to call ahead to places they knew Henry was going to be visiting–including the library–warning employees to hide. (By this time MacDonald was working at the Engine and Electrical Engineering or “EEE” Building now known as the POEE building}, where the library had moved.) As the isolation and formality around Henry increased, he became a very lonely man, MacDonald recalled feeling. Henry turned to square dancing as a social outlet, with dances in the library every Wednesday. MacDonald often danced with Henry and observed that he would chat with her the whole time they were dancing.

Besides notable visitors from around the country and the world, the Ford grandchildren were frequent visitors to the library. MacDonald remembered that Henry II and Benson liked to slide around on the highly polished floors (Henry always liked to keep things in fine finish) as though they were at a skating rink.

Clara Ford and Henry Ford

Clara Ford and Henry Ford birdwatching at “The Bungalow,” Dearborn, Michigan, 1910-1915. Henry and Clara soon selected this secluded site for their Fair Lane estate. (Object ID P.O.701, Image ID THF96013.)

Both Henry and Clara Ford were avid birders, and they created a bird sanctuary on their Dearborn estate, Fair Lane. One of MacDonald’s favorite anecdotes to relate about her days at Ford was the time Henry called her with an urgent request for information on the “correct size for a hole in a wren house.” She found the answer (⅞ of an inch) and promptly informed him. She later learned that Henry had been inspecting the wren houses built on his grounds by his staff and thought that the holes were too large. A larger hole would allow other bird species, including the ubiquitous sparrow, to invade. Upon learning that the holes were not the correct size, Henry, ever the stickler, had them all recut.

In an interview with the Detroit Free Press given around her retirement, MacDonald had more recollections about Henry Ford and the library she helped him amass. Ford was not popularly thought to have had much use for books, but MacDonald countered that he was in fact very interested in them. Henry wanted have a collection of books on hand on all manner of subjects should the need arise for him–or his staff–to look something up. He was, according to MacDonald, a frequent visitor to her library and would spend time there skimming through books, often walking off with one in his pocket. (According to her and others at Ford Motor Company, it was at Henry’s insistence that many company publications were pocket-sized, reflecting his preference for portable reading material. Think what he might have done with a smartphone or an e-reader today!) Another useful resource that she and other Engineering Library staff created and kept available at the library for their knowledge-hungry boss was a vertical file on the many topics he was interested in. It is still available for research today as the Engineering Library Vertical File, in many ways a window into Henry Ford’s mind.

As an interesting aside, though MacDonald was her married name, Rachel MacDonald was always referred to within the company as “Miss”–perhaps a reflection of different times and moeurs, when a married woman was not expected to remain in the workforce (or indeed, was expected not to remain there).

MacDonald, who had studied library science in Massachusetts before moving to Michigan, kept active professionally and was a charter member and president of the Michigan chapter of the Special Libraries Association. She retired in 1963 after long career as a librarian at Ford (37 years). MacDonald died at the age of 83 in 1981, in Florida, where she had moved after she retired.

As Neil Gaiman has famously noted (to the extent that it has become an Internet meme), “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.” While today, the answer to the “wren question,” and many others, is available at our fingertips, Rachel MacDonald’s work at the Ford Engineering Library shows how important both amassing a wealth of resources and deploying the expert knowledge to use those resources were in the time before online search. Today, the field is more democratized in terms of the knowledge and resources that are available, but experts (like my colleagues in the archives, library, and museum professions) are still needed to help identify, collect, preserve, and promote access to important information and artifacts–and in this digital age, to ensure that more and more resources are made available online for all.

Sources
Newspaper clippings for MacDonald, Rachel, in the Ford Biographical Vertical File, Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford.
Noble, William T., “Librarian Remembers Henry Ford as ‘Lonely,’” Detroit Free Press, January 6, 1963, pp. 1E-2E.

Rebecca Bizonet is an archivist at The Henry Ford.