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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!

Sarah Walker's blog

Chronicling America Website is Superhero of Online Newspaper Searches

Chronicling America home page

Chronicling America homepage

Chronicling America is an incredible online newspaper resource available for the public through the Library of Congress. Imagine this: there is a free-to-use database where you can search big city and little town newspapers within the United States. You go to the database, select a year range (1922 and earlier only at this point), select a location, type in a key word—and get results that can be viewed, enlarged, reduced, printed, and saved.

Curious about World War I? Here are some headlines. Searching for info about prison breaks, weather, government officials? Just type in your criteria and search—Chronicling America is OCR/word-searchable, which is so great! Our State Archives newspapers on microfilm are not indexed, so typically, if you want to find some information about your family, you have to search day by day, looking at each page. Not so with Chronicling America. You can just type in a name, and see what results come up!

Since 2011, we have received four grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities allowing us to add over 400,000 pages of newspapers to the site. Since not all newspapers can be included, we have selected papers from all over the state containing a lot of local news coverage. This includes papers such as the Ward County Independent, a weekly newspaper; the Bismarck Tribune, a daily; and newspapers from Grand Forks, Devils Lake, Steele, Williston, and other areas.

Chronicling America digitized newspapers

Some of the ND newspapers available on Chronicling America

One caveat to keep in mind; not all news was published in the newspaper. Chronicling America, or newspapers in general, are not a catch-all. Using this site can be a great, easy way to start a search, though, and can sometimes bring up results you might not expect to see.

For example: I received a search request about three years ago from a woman who was looking for a relative who had passed away in, she said, about December of 1902. We looked in multiple papers without any luck. A search of our link to the Vital Records death index did not show the individual dying within a ten-year span—not uncommon, especially around 1900 and through even the 1920s. There were a lot of errors and delays in reporting deaths in those early years. So I had to reply that we were unable to find anything.

Chronicling America Bismarck Tribune

Info about one of the papers available, the Bismarck Daily Tribune, on Chronicling America

Usually, that would be the end of it. However, I kept her request, and just recently, I came across it again. Just for fun, just to double check, I typed the name into Chronicling America, hoping I might find the relative’s name in a gossip column, visiting the city.

Instead, I found a death notice—a year later than the information she had provided!

It turned out, the gentleman in question had died in 1903, not 1902, and passed away in a different city. I was able to respond back, three years later, with an actual obituary. It always is disappointing to us if we can’t provide any information for these requests, so believe me when I say I was very excited to write to her again—possibly as excited as she was to receive the information!

As amazing as this all is, however, it is not possible at this time to put all of our newspapers online. This is something we are asked about frequently, and I do want to clarify that we are not planning to digitize our entire newspaper collection. The amount of time, space, and funding necessary for a venture like this is staggering. We are the official repository for newspapers from across the state, which means that newspaper titles from each of the 53 counties in the state are supposed to be sent to us on a daily or weekly basis. Considering that there is more than one newspaper for some counties, as well as the fact that we keep papers from the past—well, this adds up. Our rolls of microfilm number more than 17,500 already, and the majority of these rolls are microfilmed newspapers. One roll can hold about two years of weekly newspapers and about one month of daily newspapers.

Chronicling America Ward County Independent

A view of the front page of one ND newspaper, the Ward County Independent, from November 4, 1915, p1 on Chronicling America

I asked one of our staff about the more technical details for this. (If technical isn’t your jam, skip to the next paragraph!) If we were to scan each of our newspaper pages at 300 dpi jpg, which is an average and sometimes even larger image than you might get from a camera phone, we would need around 3.5 Petabytes, with no end in sight to more needed storage. Do you know what a petabyte is? It is approximately 1024 terabytes, or a million gigabytes of storage. That is incredibly huge. And that isn’t even providing for a high resolution image. That image would likely not be able to be enlarged or used in a display; it would be too small. That is also without making these newspapers OCR/word searchable, by the way.

So for now, I would encourage everyone to check out the incredible and amazing superhero of newspaper websites—Chronicling America can be a lifesaver in the world of newspaper searches.

Bunny in a rocket

SHSND 10200-00069. ND photographer Nancy Hendrickson’s photo of this bunny makes it look easy to be a superhero—but it’s not!

Behind the Scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota’s Museum Dance Off Video

Dancing in front of the Double Ditch mural

Museum staff Kiri Stone, museum intern Anna Killian, and museum docent Stephen Deutsch dance behind Lindsay and me during our museum dance off.

This is why we (occasionally) dance in museums.

Once upon a time, a blog was formed by a museum professional as an inside joke about things that happen in museums. The blog denoted the humor, joys, and frustrations of museum life, and became well-known to many individuals working and interested in museums. “When you work at a museum” continues to educate people in so many amusing ways that museums and their staff are not stodgy or static, but are vibrant and alive.

Through that blog, the official Museum Dance Off became a thing. It started with just a handful of videos of museum workers dancing. This year, we joined the 4th annual Museum Dance Off, along with 40 other museums from across the world (that’s right—this is an international competition)!

We didn’t make it out of the first round, but we still love our video. If you haven’t viewed it yet, you can take a peek on YouTube here.

We had so much fun making our submission that I thought the readers of our blog might enjoy a taste of the behind-the-scenes action that led to our beloved film.

Filming opening scene

Taken by Geoff Woodcox, this photo shows Jessica Rockeman (on the left) filming me for the opening scenes in about October.

The song chosen for our video was Stereo Hearts by Gym Class Hero and Adam Levine. New Media Specialist Jessica Rockeman, our mastermind behind most of the Dance Off video, felt strongly that we needed a song that we (especially she) wouldn’t get sick of. This one fit the bill.

Many of us who work here have long been hoping that we might take part in it. I love dancing in all of its forms, and combining that passion with the idea of showcasing our awesome museum is just too exciting. Once I heard that we were going to try to submit for this year, I peppered Jess with questions as to where we were in the process. When she told me the song title, I exclaimed, “I love that song! I know it really well!”

“Great. You’re hired,” she proclaimed.

There is a difference between knowing a song and performing it, though. Every clip was filmed multiple times, and sometimes it took a few takes until I had the right words.

“It’s always easy until the camera is on you,” Jess quipped.

We used this video to highlight the galleries and spaces available at our museum. Staff from all of our divisions joined in—in fact, Lindsay and I, the two “lead vocalists,” are both archives staff, and many others who participated or helped were from other divisions. It became a starting point for future endeavors of this type and more, the type of project that both promoted our place of work in many different ways and also showed what fun our jobs are. Claudia Berg, our agency director, even has a cameo in the video. How awesome to see leadership supporting a fun project that showcases our facility!

SHSND Director Claudia Berg pointing at camera

Our agency director, Claudia Berg, takes part.

Jess made sure that we all wore black and white throughout the film. The reason for this, she said, is that the camera loves black and white. Since I was in so many scenes, I picked out one black and white number (a very comfortable dress that was easy to pull on) and changed into it when we were shooting. I was very concerned about maintaining continuity, to the point that I kept worrying about whether my shoes (which sometimes were boots rather than the shoes you see at the opening of the song) would show on camera, or whether people would notice that I wasn’t wearing my Fitbit Alta on my wrist, or that I was wearing an additional ring during the filming. Jess laughed at this.

“No one will notice,” she said.

It’s true. You have to look really closely to notice many of the things I was concerned about—including that my hair grew probably 1-2 inches from the beginning of the filming to the end. After all, we started in about September, grabbing time whenever we could. All of the outdoor scenes were shot in the fall. We ended the filming a week or two before our deadline in March. Thank goodness we started early!

Wendi pushing Sarah on cart

Wendi is pushing me through their collections area.

Oh. There is so much I can say about this video. I literally shed blood and sweat for this project (dancing around in the atrium got pretty warm that afternoon, and I cut my hands up at least once during the filming process). Probably tears, too, from laughing so hard. But it was SO MUCH FUN. From Wendi suggesting that she would push me through a collections area in the bottom of a cart to Becky letting us use the mosasaur puppet she crafted for use with children’s programs, we really took this little film to a level we could be proud of.

We didn’t win this year. (Congratulations, Herman Otto Muzeum of Miskolc, Hungary, for your success in the Museum Dance Off 4: A New Hope! You can watch their video here.) But we did come away with a great experience and ideas for the next dance off.

We’re fun. We’ve got it.

Next year will be our year!

Posing in Archaeology collections with bones

Here, we are in Archaeology’s collections and work area, with Meagan Schoenfelder (right) and Brooke Morgan (left) making this scene amazing. They were so into this portion. It was hilarious and remains one of my favorite shots.