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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!

Danielle Stuckle's blog

Asking the Right Questions of History: How Do We Know?

How do you eat a whale? One bite at a time. How do you teach history? The same way. The history of us—North Dakotans, Americans, humans, the planet—is a really big story. We break it down, one bite at a time, into arbitrary regions and time periods to make it easier to process.

At places like the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck and our state historic sites, we try to have a comprehensive, encyclopedic approach to telling the story of North Dakota. If something has happened within the borders of the state to the people who have lived here (even for the briefest time), we try to capture that story when we can. We break the “big picture” story down into lots of little stories and themes. We try our best to identify these stories, preserve them, interpret them, and promote them. This means we also have to make some very hard decisions. We have committees that decide everything from what objects we collect to what history books get sold in the store. There are a lot of people who help decide which stories are highlighted on any given day at the State Museum.

Grey Whale jumping out of water

Grey Whale breaches the ocean.

My job as an outreach coordinator with the North Dakota Studies project is to help educators break this whale of a story down into bite-size pieces for their students. Rather than having educators try to teach all of North Dakota history in just a few weeks, we help teachers and their students to think like historians, so they find the bite-size stories that they are interested in and learn to think critically about how that story is interpreted.

Instead of having students memorize an encyclopedia’s worth of names, places, and dates, museum educators would rather students learn more about how historians think. How do we develop good questions to ask of the past? How do we find and analyze sources to know whether they are accurate? Does the evidence support our hypothesis? The key to making all of this relevant and interesting to students is the questions we ask. We want to ask questions of history that lead to investigation and analysis.

We want students to become history detectives. Instead of simply telling students what type of shelter people of the past used, we want them to think about what type of resources would have been available in a particular location. When we look at illustrations of tipis, earthlodges, forts, and sod cabins, we want them to think about why someone might be living in that particular style of housing. Why would someone build a fort? Why would a tipi be useful? Solving these puzzles is more interesting and engaging than simply memorizing textbook information. The single most useful question my colleagues and I ask of the content we work with is “How do we know?” Try using this question the next time you are visiting an exhibit or reading a book, and see if it leads to some detective work of your own.

Reading and writing in a book with a magnifying glass and pen

Solving history's mysteries: How do we know what we know?

History Odysseys: Connecting with Places Where Interesting Things Happened

We all have moments in our lives that, when we look back, seem to define something important about us. One of mine took place on a hot summer day when I was in grade school. I was standing in the basement of the Alfred Dickey Library in Jamestown, ND. I remember my mom arguing with the librarian over how many books I could take home. It was the beginning of summer vacation, and we had placed two big stacks of Nancy Drew books on the checkout counter. Despite my mother’s assurances, the librarian was not convinced I could read all of those books in just two weeks. The librarian finally caved when she realized we lived on a farm. The library had a policy to extend book loans to a month for farm families. I was tickled to take my bag full of books out to the car, and before we got home, I was deep into The Secret of the Old Clock. A week later my mom was pretty tickled to return to the library to exchange my pile of books for a new stack.

Aisle full of books in a library

My favorite place to be--a library. Credit: Glen Noble on Unsplash.

Having learned this story about me, it probably won’t surprise you at all that I eagerly said yes when I was asked to help this same library with a new exhibit about Louis L’Amour. L’Amour, who spent his formative years in Jamestown, wrote about how influential the Alfred Dicky Library was to him as a kid. He credited the library with helping to shape his unconventional education. It was an education that led a high school dropout to become a bestselling author. Freshly renovated, the library is putting together a small exhibit about L’Amour’s years in Jamestown. More than two decades after his death, he is still a popular author. People often come through town looking for more of his personal story.

Exterior view of the Alfred Dickey Library

The Alfred Dickey Library in Jamestown, ND. Credit: Warren Abrahamson (NewsDakota.com).

Recently I had the opportunity to visit the library again and see the space where the planned exhibit will be installed. Walking up the flight of stairs into the library, seeing that beautiful stained glass, and smelling the library smell of my childhood brought a lot of memories flooding back for me. It’s moments like these that I remember how important the actual physical, tangible space of a place can be. You can read about a place in a book, but nothing can replace that experience of making a pilgrimage to that particular place. Smelling the smells. Hearing the sounds. Experiencing firsthand the scale of the space. This is an amazing experience that helps you better understand what really happen in a particular spot, at a particular time.

Contractors working in the Louis L'Amour Reading Room

Contractors finish work in the Louis L’Amour Reading Room at the Alfred Dickey Library in Jamestown, ND. Credit: Friends of the James River Valley Library System

Part of experiencing history, really getting into it, letting it seep into your pores and your imagination, is to make these pilgrimages, these odysseys, to the actual place where something interesting happened. The State Historical Society of North Dakota manages more than 50 museums and historic sites across the state where history really happened. Where will your journey take you?