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North Dakota: Legendary. Follow the trail of legends

Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota’s natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Gotta Dig ‘Em All

Another series of bones are being slowly added to the State Fossil collection. Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, held one of the largest collections of Edmontosaurus (“duck-billed” dinosaur – same kind of animal as “Dakota the Dinomummy”) bones in the country. Dr. Ron Nellermoe, who recently retired from a position of teaching biology and geology at the school, worked on a quarry of Edmontosaurus in South Dakota for over ten years. During that time, thousands of fossils were collected, many with beautiful preservation. This collection of fossils is where I got my start – my real start – in paleontology.

I had spent the last five years preparing Green River Formation fossil fish from Wyoming, so I wasn’t totally new to the time and patience needed for fossils. It was the spring of 1998; my grandmother had spotted an ad in the local paper about a “communiversity” course being offered on dinosaurs and fossils. I wanted to jump at the chance, but I had already watched one opportunity vanish. Two years prior, my aunt let me know about a dig in Wyoming – BUT – you had to be 15 to go. I waited a year, only to find out the dig had shut down. Now at 16, I wanted more than anything to go on this dig, but we weren’t sure if they would allow a high school student along.

My family contacted the school, and thus Dr. Nellermoe. He wasn’t thrilled about the idea of a 16-year-old girl going along. -Somehow they convinced him and assured him that an adult would accompany me on site. I was in! The spring was spent volunteering in the paleontology lab, learning how to clean and identify bones, and reading every paleontological reference book I could. Summer finally hit, and I dove into digging. I pulled my weight, probably asked way too many questions, kept a journal, and soaked up as much as I could. Meanwhile my Mom painted the local landscape.

Pages from Becky's first field journals

Pages from the first field journals Becky took at the Concordia Edmontosaurus quarry.

Fall hit – I was back volunteering in the lab. This kept up for the next two years until I finally could officially enroll at Concordia College. By this point, I transitioned my volunteering to work study and obtained one of my favorite job descriptions ever: bone technician.

Young Becky on site

Becky hiding from the summer sun. OR A young Becky on site. OR both.

After Concordia, I continued my schooling at NDSU, using the Edmontosaurus collection as the basis for my Master’s degree. Eventually graduating and moving to Bismarck, I had to wave a fond farewell to the collection and professors that played such a large part in getting me to where I was. Then a few years later – a phone call. The science buildings at Concordia were undergoing a massive renovation, and there would be no room for bones. Would the State Fossil collection in Bismarck make a good home?

Long story short, we’re in the process of transferring the collection – I get the chance to continue working with the bones that started me on my way.

Bones in storage at ND Heritage Center

Plastered and finished bones moved to the State Fossil collection so far.

Archivist is My Name, Organization is My Game

When people find out I’m an archivist, I am often greeted with a very puzzled look and usually another question—like, “What’s that?”

On any day, you can find me processing collections of documents, records, photographs, or moving image materials. As archivists, one of our main priorities is to make sure items are stored and organized properly in order to maintain the longest record life possible. In this blog, I’ll discuss processing a large manuscript collection that includes all of these items.

Shelves with boxes of Frank Vyzralek's collection

Some of the processed materials from the Frank Vyzralek Collection

Over the past year, I and other archivists at the State Historical Society picked up personal papers, research, and records belonging to Frank Vyzralek, North Dakota’s first state archivist. Vyzralek was a passionate historian who researched a great variety of topics in relation to North Dakota such as baseball, beer, the city of Bismarck, crime, mills and elevators, places in North Dakota, railroads, and steamboats.

When Vyzralek’s donation arrived at the State Archives, almost 400 feet of boxes contained loose papers, photographs, and audiovisual materials. We had to determine how to best organize and store this valuable collection.

The first step we took was to establish series for the different materials. In the archives world, a series is a group of similar records. The series we decided on were Research Files, Personal Papers, Photographs, and Audiovisual Materials. Within the series, we then created subseries and sub subseries that reflected the topics and types of records with each series.

Box of folders with processed records from the Mill & Elevator Sub Subseries

Processed records from the Mill & Elevator Sub Subseries alphabetized and dated in archival folders

After the series, subseries, and sub subseries were established, we began the preliminary sorting. Most of the time, each box contained many different topics and types of records in no particular order. Along with the paper items, some boxes even had different types of artifacts like matchbooks and other collectables. These items will be offered to the Museum Division, because they are three-dimensional. This part of the processing took my colleague and I about three months to complete.

Newspaper clippings

Newspaper clippings regarding mills and elevators in Burleigh County in chronological order

When we finished with the preliminary sort, we began a more in-depth process, where we tackled each subseries, organizing the records by location or chronologically. Vyzralek liked to use newspaper clippings in his research. For one sub subseries, for example Mills and Elevators, it took some time to organize the thousands of newspaper clippings in a way that would be useful to researchers who will use Vyzralek’s papers in the future. After eight months of alphabetizing and organizing chronologically, this part of the processing was complete. During this stage, we came across a few live bugs and spiders. It added some excitement (and screams) to the process.

Boxes with binders of photographs

Processing in progress on photographs

Once we were finished with the paper records, we began to process the photographs Vyzralek took or collected. Again, we had to decide how to organize the photographs in a way that would create the best accessibility for researchers. We thought it would be best to organize the photographs by those Vyzralek used for research and those that related to his personal life, such as family and school photos. Just as we did with papers, we organized the photographs by location and date. Topics in the research photos include railroad depots, postcards, aerials of towns, churches, breweries, and other buildings in North Dakota.

Containers of floppy disks

Hundreds of floppy disks from the Frank Vyzralek Collection

Vyzralek stored much of his research on floppy disks, which will also be in his collection. However, floppy disks are now obsolete. As we process the physical papers, we also have to harvest the files of his research off the floppy disks to make sure the digital files are accessible to researchers, too. This entails finding a floppy disk drive, scanning for viruses, and ensuring there are no changes to the file during the processing of the digital files. Digital files provide more accessibility to the collection.

We are still processing the Frank Vyzralek Collection, but it will be finished in spring 2016. Once processing is complete, there will be a finding aid available on our website (http://history.nd.gov/archives/manuscripts/inventory/10553.html) for researchers to use. This is just one of many rich collections of North Dakota history that can be researched in the State Archives.