Monday, July 27, 2009

A "Super" Find

Way back a few centuries ago in the mid-1980s, long before anyone had ever heard the word “internet,” I was assigned to write an article for Smithsonian magazine on the decline of a once-loved American institution, the drug store soda fountain. The research for my story led me to seek newspaper and magazine articles from the heyday of soda fountains in the early- and mid-20th century.

If you are of a certain age, you will understand what I mean when I say that this endeavor resulted in my spending many hours in a public library squinting through a gargantuan, eye-straining machine known as a microfilm reader. If you are younger than that, herewith a brief explanation: to make back issues of certain magazines and newspapers accessible for years to come, a few companies were in the business of photographing the publications, page by page, and printing them onto acetate film in a much reduced size.

The film was called microfilm and in order to actually read it, a researcher could put the film into a machine called a microfilm reader and turn a cranking device (later replaced by an electric motor) in order to scroll to the section being sought. Lenses magnified the film onto a screen. Needless to say, it was no easy feat to find the right section and you had to watch unwanted pages whiz by, often zipping past the part you wanted. It was a pain in the . . . eyes. But who knew that such things as personal computers and internet browsers and search engines and digital archives would make the job a lot easier if only we were willing to wait a few decades?

Despite the trials of research by microfilm (and, slightly later, microfiche, a close cousin of microfilm that used flat sheets of film instead of rolls, thus avoiding the need for scrolling), it had some advantages. When you looked for an article in the New York Times about an especially popular soda fountain in Queens, as I did, you didn’t just get that article in isolation, but you got a glimpse into the world of 1951, as captured on the pages of the Times. There were other articles on the politics and culture and society and sporting events of the day, and there were advertisements that presented the tenor of the times as well as anything a journalist could have written. (In the course of reading about that Queens soda fountain, for example, I learned that big shiny luxury cars were selling for under $2,000. I reached for my credit card but then remembered that there were no credit cards back then.)

In the course of my research on soda fountains, conducted on the microfilm reader at the Wallingford (CT) Public Library, I stumbled upon a very short article, a space-filler, positioned on a back page of the New York Times of July 8, 1951. It briefly told the story of a 66-year old Swedish grandfather named Gustaf Håkansson who had just completed a 1,000-mile bicycle race despite having been barred from the race on account of his age. (How laughable that is in the context of a modern era in which athletes ten or fifteen years older than Gustaf routinely complete grueling races of many kinds -- but this was the early 1950s). Hakansson had, in fact, started his personal race well ahead of the other racers and, 158 hours 20 minutes later, he finished to the rapturous cheers of thousands of fans who had turned out just to see him — the official racers weren’t due in for another day!

Gustaf’s story enchanted me, a lifelong bicycle lover, and I decided it needed to be told in its stereotype-bashing entirety. First, of course, I had to find out the story in its entirety.

Using The Reader’s Guide to Periodic Literature, an index that was then a staple on the reference shelves of libraries, I was able to find a more lengthy article about Gustaf in a long-defunct magazine called Lifetime Living. The article filled in some of the details, but I thought I’d need even more if I wanted to get into the mind of Gustaf and the psyche of his adoring fans. I hoped to see why he is, even to this day, remembered as a hero in Sweden.

Luckily, I had a Swedish friend living in the States who was getting ready to visit her family over the holidays. She offered to look in old Swedish newspapers for articles on the bushy-bearded bicyclist. She found several good ones and actually translated them into English for me. Another friend, studying at the University of Lund in Sweden, did further research with the help of a librarian friend.

The result was my picture book Supergrandpa, illustrated by Bert Dodson, later republished as Super Grandpa (with an audio CD of me reading the story with Swedish fiddle music in the background). In telling Gustaf’s story, I decided to “embroider” the actual facts to add to the dramatic tension, but in a page of back matter, I explained what actually happened.

To me, the most provocative lesson of this story is not about a bicycle ride in Sweden more than half a century ago. It is about differences in research methods between the internet era and the microfilm era. I’ll take the enormous power of the internet over the squinting inefficiency of microfilm readers any day. But let us not forget that sometimes the forgotten ways had their own power. Had I not been seduced by the charm of an old newspaper, the story of Gustaf Håkansson would probably still be buried in the back pages of a paper published on July 8th, 1951, and hardly noticed after July 9th.


Vicki Cobb said...

David. great post! How well I remember scrolling through the microfilm. I also went to obscure libraries to leaf through hundreds of back issues of very specialized magazines. I depended on the copying machine then. The internet makes it a lot easier to do research while sitting at home. But it seems to takes more time than ever. We can dig up so much material tnat it still takes a discerning eye to distinguish the wheat from the chaff (to use an anachronistic metaphore).

Sarah Campbell said...

Thank you for posting this story. We have to be on the lookout for we weren't specifically looking for, but which contain the seeds of a good story.

beck said...

I LOVE Super Grandpa and read it to my elementary students every year! (My own dad--in his 60's--is an avid biker, too.)

Matthew Gollub said...

Excellent story, David. Thanks for sharing it. Even as the publisher of the revised "Super Grandpa" with audio CD, I did not appreciate the element of chance in the creation of your fine book! I too recognize the power of our older research tools. At the moment, I'm in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Reading ghost stories in Spanish, I often break to look up words in a dictionary (not online). Often, I seem to fall under the spell of one term, the search for which reveals interesting connections to others. I figure anyone over 30 probably knows what I'm talking about. Much more enriching to thumb through pages of vocabulary than to arrive at laser speed to the one word that first mattered!