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!

Daniel Sauerwein's blog

State Archives Adjusts to Life During a Pandemic

Winter is upon us, and the holidays are in full swing. At the State Archives, we have had to make some adjustments to the reading room because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers will notice several changes to procedures since the State Archives reopened to the public in late June. So far, folks seem to have adjusted well.

The biggest change is in access and hours. Before the pandemic, we were open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m., and the second Saturday of each month from 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., unless it was a holiday. Since reopening, our hours as well as those of the larger North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum have adjusted, with the State Archives open from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. on the second Saturday of the month. We use our time at work before and after opening hours to prepare for the day and take care of email requests.

In addition to shortened hours, access to the reading room is by appointment only, with visitors capped at no more than six at any given time to maintain social distancing. Researchers are requested to contact us ahead of time via email at archives@nd.gov, or by phone at 701.328.2091, to schedule an appointment. This has worked well in most cases, and we have only hit maximum capacity a handful of times.

A small table with a black form fitting cloth over it sits beyond an open door. There is a map and a sign saying Please Wait Here sitting atop the table.

Visitors to the State Archives must now wait at the entrance for a member of the reference team to come and speak with them.

Social distancing has also necessitated some changes to the reading room beyond shortened hours and limited capacity. We have had to shift equipment and furniture to maintain spacing for the safety of our visitors. The result is reduced technology available for researchers. Prior to closing for the pandemic, we had six microfilm readers/printers and six computers available for research. In order to space everything out to maintain the recommended six feet of distance, two of our microfilm readers/printers are no longer accessible to the public. Meanwhile, four research computers along the windows are available for use. To date, it’s the microfilm readers most likely to be at capacity.

A row of gray filing cabinets line the right side and tables with computers, printers and scanners line the left side.

The number of available microfilm readers has been reduced due to social distancing measures.

Square wooden tables line a wall with windows. A matching chair sits with each desk. On top of each desk is a computer monitor, keyboard, and mouse.

While our research computers were much closer together before the COVID-19 closure last spring, we do like how the current spacing gives patrons a little more privacy, too.

Access to our materials has also changed since reopening. While our microfilm is still self-service, before the closure patrons would leave the film on top of the cabinets for staff to put up at the end of the day. Now we have patrons place used rolls into a white box. Used microfilm is held for 24 hours before we return it to the cabinets. In addition, our physical collections, such as manuscripts and state government records, require a 24-hour notice, so we can pull them down for quarantine. Researchers wanting to look at collections need to plan in advance because we are no longer able to pull materials the same day.

Two square wood tables with two chairs each and three rectangle wood tables with two to three chairs are shown spaced apart for social distancing.

Tables in the reading room are spaced to ensure proper social distancing is maintained.

A red card on wheels is shown in the middle of wooden tables and chairs and bookcases filled with books.

When they are finished, patrons must now leave books on the red cart so that staff can quarantine the materials.

In addition to these measures, we sanitize the equipment after each patron has used it to ensure a cleaner environment. We also have hand sanitizer placed around the reading room. As is the case in the rest of the Heritage Center, masks are required for visitors. Compliance with and understanding of the various changes has been positive, with folks happy to have us open again. As always, we continue to provide remote reference services via email and phone.

A black cart on wheels is shown with a brown cover over it and a reindeer head sitting atop it with a red draped cloth with bells to look like a reindeer.

Olive, the other reindeer, unofficial holiday mascot of the State Archives, was the creation of retired State Archivist Ann Jenks.

Finally, with the holiday season upon us, our mascot, Olive, the other reindeer, has taken up residence in the reading room to guard it and ensure folks adhere to the new rules. While it has been an adjustment for us as well, we are making the best of a unique situation while continuing to provide the valuable services of the State Archives. Have a wonderful holiday season and a safe remainder of the year. Here’s hoping 2021 will see an end to this pandemic.

Archives Adventures During Telecommuting

Summer is here, and there have been several changes of late. The biggest change has been the COVID-19 pandemic and adjusting to working from home for two months. As a reference specialist, I assist researchers in accessing the materials they need to answer their diverse questions. Being unable to access our physical materials because of the closure limited me in how quickly I could respond to requests, but our amazing patrons have been very understanding. That said, this situation presented me with opportunities as well. I entered data on a couple record groups when not handling the requests that could be answered with our online resources.

The first group of records I worked with were marriage records from Oliver County dating from 1896 to 1925. Marriage records are a popular request among our patrons, as genealogical research represents a sizable amount of our research requests. Most such requests revolve around naturalization records, marriage records, and obituaries.

You can learn much about an area from a group of marriage licenses. Seeing several licenses of the same last name for the groom or bride indicates a fairly large family lived in that area, and the children were settling down. Since these licenses spanned 1896-1925 with most being in the 1905-1920 time frame, which coincided with a sizable wave of immigration into North Dakota, several folks applying for licenses were possibly either new immigrants themselves, or the children of immigrants to the area. One interesting pattern appeared in that men with the same last name, who are assumed to be brothers, seemed to marry sisters of a family. This likely relates to immigration patterns, where several families from a community overseas will migrate to a specific location in the United States.

scan of a marriage license

Marriage licenses from this time also note locations that are now memories in a county. Several unique locations were noted on the licenses for the place of marriage, with many being, according to Doug Wick’s book North Dakota Place Names, rural post offices in the various townships. In addition, they clue us into the differences in society at that time, especially the fragility of life, as there were a few licenses that have the same man marrying more than once. While divorce is a possibility for why the first marriage ended, life expectancy was much shorter at that time. With events like the Spanish Flu pandemic, other diseases, and the risks of death in childbirth, an untimely death for the spouse is also a possibility. Seeing these licenses made me wonder about the situation that caused the groom to remarry so soon after seeing an initial license bearing his name. Did he leave his wife, did she leave him, or did she die in an unfortunate situation? As the data entry was paramount on the group of licenses, this question could only be pondered for a moment.

scan of a marriage license

One unique challenge to these licenses is those filling them out had handwriting that left much to be desired. This is one of the challenges when transcribing older documents and records for data entry, or to just understand the document better. Several times during the data entry for these licenses, consulting Census records via Ancestry was necessary to try to decipher a name, especially in circumstances where initials were used (usually the husband’s) instead of the full first name. This was a minor issue, but one that is worth noting. Overall, the addition of the data on these licenses will enhance ease of access to these records for our patrons in the future, as such records are quite popular.

The other group of records I am working with during this time away from the office is the facsimile files. These binders contain photocopies that allowed patrons to look at our photograph holdings before we began the digitization process. Information about the photo, including collection number, item number, a description of the photo, and, if known, the donor is noted. I am working with photos of schools arranged by county. Most are of rural schools and are roughly 100 years old.

There are some cool photos in these binders. The most unique was a photo from Valley City High School in 1905 described as “Boys Toilet Room.” Yes, someone took a photo of the interior of the boys restroom in Valley City High School in 1905. Fortunately, it appears it may be either related to the construction of the school or done at a time when nobody was in the building. It made me chuckle though and think of the popular rock song “Smokin’ in the Boys Room.”

While working from home has been an adjustment during these unique times, data entry on both the marriage records and facsimile files will provide greater access to our materials in the future. It will be nice to return to the North Dakota Heritage Center more often to catch up on requests and to help the public with their research questions. Someday, archivists will preserve and process material related to this time and helping researchers to answer questions about 2020, and there will be many. Have a safe and happy summer.