Research History of Iowa Gardens of the Past
I spent over five years researching, writing, designing, printing and publishing Iowa Gardens of the Past. The process of doing all those things might be of interest to some readers, particularly people who are considering self-publishing an image-heavy local history book of their own.
Research and Writing (2014-2019)
I began looking for vintage images of Iowa gardens in Fall 2014, thinking that it was a shame that no one had ever written about the history of gardening in Iowa. I started by visiting a number of libraries over a period of several years:
~The Iowa State Historical Society library, Iowa City, including the Special Collections department (I visited this library numerous times, and cannot thank all the librarians there enough for their help over nearly five years!)
~The Iowa City Public Library, which requested numerous books and articles for me through their Inter-library Loan program, making it possible for me, as an independent researcher, to access any information I needed.
~the Special Collections library at Grinnell College (they have an extensive postcard collection there)
~Davenport Library Special Collections
~Special Collections at the Historic Pella Trust
~Council Bluffs Public Library Special Collections
~Musser Public Library in Muscatine
~Iowa State Historical Society library, Des Moines
~Iowa State University Special Collections
~University of Iowa Special Collections
~Cedar Rapids Public Library
Additionally, I visited several museums:
At all of these libraries and museums, the process was the same: after making an advance appointment to visit and alerting the librarians that I was interested in Iowa garden images, I would arrive and look through the archival materials that the librarians had pulled from their collections. This often necessitated wearing white gloves as I looked through collections of fragile 19th-century stereograph photos and other older materials.
When I found an image that was of interest to me, I took a snapshot of it using my pocket digital camera. These snapshots were sometimes good enough to use in the book itself, although in the case of slide images and some others, the snapshot merely stood in for the better image that I would request from the library later, once I had decided for certain to include it in the final publication.
I also used my camera to take snapshots of written material like books and newspaper articles that were relevant to my research (in lieu of taking written notes). At the state historical library in Iowa City, I looked through six decades of Better Homes & Gardens magazines (1922 to the 1970s) and eight decades of Iowa State Horticultural Society annual reports (1869 through the mid-1950s), and took snapshots of Iowa garden images and interesting articles in those publications. This was a lot of work, but tremendously fascinating in the overviews I was given of American cultural history, and Iowa horticultural history.
All my library and museum visits were in addition to the searching for images that I did online at various online collections:
I also searched for postcards, photos and seed catalogs on Ebay, where I set up search notifications that emailed me any new listings nearly every day for over five years.
Once I had found a nice image of an Iowa garden, either online or at a library, I then did as much research as possible online to find out more about the owners of the garden, the exact modern address of the garden, and whether any remnants remain of the garden. Often there were local newspaper articles that had been published about the garden, and sometimes the garden owner even wrote articles themselves about gardening. If these could not be accessed online, I requested the articles I needed through my local public library’s (the Iowa City Public Library) Inter-library Loan program.
All this was fascinating research that I greatly enjoyed — a combination of detective work and genealogy research — and which involved using many online research tools:
~Google Street (to peer into modern front and side yards)
~the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Historic Aerial Photo Project (which features aerial photographs taken in the 1930s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s).
I continued this process of researching online and in institutions off-and-on for around four years, mostly during autumn and winter seasons, when it was nice to have an indoor project to keep me occupied — my spring and summer seasons were often spent working on my own gardens, not researching other people’s gardens.
But I enjoyed the research process so much that I undoubtedly kept working on it for far longer than I really needed to — although I found some of the most interesting and beautiful gardens toward the end of my research, so it’s probably just as well that I enjoyed it so greatly! I continued to find useful material right up to the very last month (December 2019) before the book was printed.
But by late 2018, I decided that had worked on research for my book for long enough, and turned my thoughts to how I might publish what I had written.