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Magazine

Primary Concerns

How a history major fell in love with primary source material and, years later, decided to support its digitization.

By Lara Zielin

In 1975, the United States was in the midst of a recession, and New York City was hard hit. With its credit cut off and a cash-flow short- age looming, the city needed money fast in order to cover its bills. Without help, bankruptcy was near on the horizon.

Desperate for federal aid, New York City’s mayor and governor went to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Ford at the White House. The meeting was less than successful. Ford told them to solve the financial crisis themselves, and they left without a dime. Shortly thereafter, the New York Daily News ran the famous head- line: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”

Some argue Ford’s hardline attitude on New York cost him the next presidential election. For his part, Ford called the drop-dead phrase inaccurate and unfair. So what was the truth of that meeting and the Ford administration’s position?

That’s the question history major Larry Portnoy wanted to answer for his honors thesis ahead of his graduation in 1985. So he dug into the archive at the Ford Presidential Library, which would be his first in-depth encounter with primary source material. Portnoy calls it a “fascinating experience,” and says that, in the end, “the public face of the Ford Administration was a true reflection of what they wanted to do. The administration was going to push New York City to fix the problem before federal help arrived.”

This appreciation for research and primary source material would, years later, spur Portnoy’s investment in early digitization eff  ts at the University of Michigan Library. He funded the addition of 99 volumes of material to a digital repository called the Making of America, which features primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction. “The idea that real primary materials reflecting real history can be made accessible to as wide an audience as possible—I think that’s fantastic,” Portnoy says.

Portnoy’s has also given generous and ongoing support to the Bentley. Each year, he provides a dollar-for-dollar match on Giving Tuesday (or, as it’s called at Michigan, “Giving Blueday”), which is a day dedicated to philanthropy on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. Portnoy’s support has helped fuel ongoing digitization work at the Bentley. Last year alone, the Bentley digitized more than 725 linear feet in materials.

“Once something is digitized, anyone who is interested in or doing work in this area can have access. It’s incredible in terms of impact.”

Today, Portnoy is a partner in the litigation department at the New York City offices of the Davis Polk law firm, and he says he still uses primary source materials and research in his day-to-day work. “I might work with a testimony that was created a day ago, but it’s still primary. If you’re looking for the truth, going back to primary sources is sometimes the only way.”