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

Writing for Dakota Datebook

Dakota Datebook logoIf you are a fan of Prairie Public Radio here in North Dakota, you may already be familiar with the “Dakota Datebook” program (which you can access online—newer archives are here and older archives are here). It airs five times a day, every day, and features snippets of North Dakota history that relate to that date in time. The posts pop up all over—sometimes reprinted in newspapers—and last year, a selection of dates were published in book form!

The State Historical Society of North Dakota has been a longtime partner in this program. A handful of past Archives interns have written specifically for this program during their time with us (such as Jayme Job, Tessa Sandstrom, Annie Erling, Maria Witham, Carol Wilson, and Alyssa Boge). Some of our staff serve as part of the editorial board. Also, a few of us write for the program—and as a result, we have ended up helping with a few different series that have formed.

Avid listeners to the series will likely remember these series. While there have been a few more, unconnected to the State Historical Society (such as Steve Stark’s series on Theodore Roosevelt from this past summer), a good number have been written by staff here:

  • One series, mainly written by Jim Davis, (though I assisted on one or two dates), was written for the 50th National Historic Preservation Act. Staff in our Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division provided some ideas for those datebooks.
  • Jim Davis also took the lead on and wrote a MASSIVE number of entries documenting and commemorating the anniversary of World War I, as well as a “Countdown to Statehood” series for the 125th anniversary of North Dakota’s statehood.
  • And now, I am writing my first series celebrating the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment—a series on women’s suffrage! And what better time to discuss this series than now, during National Women’s History month?

Now, I wouldn’t say I’m an expert on women’s suffrage, but writing for the series means you do a lot of research that takes you off in many different directions, and you learn a LOT of details—and get very familiar with it. In fact, I think you kind of start to LIVE the history. And the history is fascinating! Suffrage bills were present in many legislative sessions. However, not all men or women supported the idea. Prior to obtaining suffrage fully through the 19th Amendment, women did get some limited voting rights in North Dakota. Gov. Lynn Frazier alone would sign several bills related to women’s right to vote, including the ratification in December 1919. And despite all of this, women also still served in elected public offices, many quite early on. Such as Laura Eisenhuth—she was the first woman elected to state-wide office in North Dakota and the first woman to hold a state superintendent’s position in the United States in the 1890s.

The resources are out there, and it’s been a treat to find them and bring them together. I’ve read through old House and Senate journals when women’s suffrage had been on the agenda. I’ve been following threads concerning suffrage through different newspapers. (Thank you, Chronicling America!) I’ve been looking at posters and illustrations depicting the fight for suffrage—both here, and through the National Archives collections. These have been invaluable resources during my first few entries.

I’m also lucky to have a timeline I can follow, which the North Dakota Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission put together, that gives me some direction if I am failing. Though I always have enjoyed writing about obscure details, the whole history helps to ground these stories and is also necessary for the series.

And then, to add icing to the cake, I am reading these entries for the program. Since these stories are about women, Prairie Public wanted to use a woman’s voice for the entries. I have never recorded something for radio before, so I am honored every time that I am able to bring a voice to these words.

This is a really fun, very different, and interesting part of my job, and I look forward to continue working on this project through this partnership.

Collage of artifacts

These items, from our ephemera collection, show items for and against suffrage. Note that the North Dakota Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage consists of all women officers. SHSND SA 11354-Womens_Suffrage

Sarah Walker at a computer and with radio equipment

Sarah Walker at Prairie Public Station in Bismarck, ready to record. The audio is actually recorded long-distance in Fargo, where it is edited and made ready to air.

Working with Young Patrons in the State Archives

I love working in the Archives — but I know that our collections don’t appeal to children and young adults in the traditional way. We don’t have exhibits or spaces made for participation like in our attached State Museum. We are interactive, yes — but we have a research factor that is necessary to discover the gems in our holdings.

So when the younger age demographic wanders into the Archives, it does not surprise me to see them turn and walk back out. Consisting mainly of unique papers and photos, digital files, and books, the Archives aren’t cut out for a clientele of babies or toddlers.

However, we do interact with older children, and lately the number of our younger researchers has increased. Sometimes they wander in with parents doing research. Sometimes they are brought in to listen to an oral history or to assist an older family member with computer use. Sometimes, they are here for an event — like Future Farmers of America, or National History Day — and they find us while waiting to present or participate. Sometimes, they still turn and run, but they also occasionally get interested in what we are and what we have. It’s really exciting to watch this happen.

black and white photo of a classroom with students

This image shows a classroom from Pierce County, approximately 1898. Times have changed! SHSND 10844-00108

Many of our younger patrons come during classroom visits. They get a behind-the-scenes tour, learn how to use our resources, and learn how to do research in specific collections. We’ve provided quite a few of these opportunities for high school groups — but also for their younger compatriots. This is so much fun, but so different in how we approach our discussion. Typically, our first approach is to explain what an Archives is and what its purpose is. What do we collect? What don’t we collect? How are we similar to and different from the museum collections?

I’ve given many memorable tours to and helped provide research for younger patrons. One year, I provided a behind-the-scenes tour to a mixed-age group from a one-room school in the western portion of the state. Their ages ranged from about 7 to 12. I had a group of middle school boys who job-shadowed several of us in the Archives. I’ve had various tours with groups of high schoolers — including a group that came in and got a taste of research in the Reading Room, led by one of my own past high school teachers!

Sometimes I show them how to use microfilm and help them learn how to look up big news events (World Wars I and II, September 11, the 1966 blizzard), or help them to look up something of personal importance, such as their own birth announcement or a family marriage announcement.

Bismarck Tribune clipping

Seeing something such as this headline from 1930 would certainly be of interest to kids who wonder what Christmas was like when their grandparents were little.

Sometimes I help them get set up with viewing photo images in our Reading Room. Searching by topic is of great interest to them, and they respond positively to viewing a unique, captured moment of the past.

A little more than a year ago, we had multiple groups of fourth graders come to the State Historical Society to do research for school. We met about five times with various teachers and students. They got a tour of the Reading Room and learned how to look up our collections. Then we provided them with some collections that the teachers had requested ahead of time, as well as some general information files we had on various topics of interest that they were researching. They looked at photo collections, manuscript collections, general information files, books, and newspaper clippings on microfilm and online, all related to different topics — including steamboats, the city of Bismarck, and railroads. They selected and photographed or copied items that informed them about this history, which they shared with their class and used for their projects. At the same time, they worked with our Archaeology & Historic Preservation division and visited a local state historic site. While not all of the kids went to all of the locations of interest, they worked jointly on a project that all of the research went toward. It was great to see the kids get into their topics of study. They were so excited about what they found — it did an archivist’s heart good!

handwritten thank you note on lined paper

A thank you note I was sent after one of our job shadowing experiences. I have it hanging up in my office!

These kids and young adults will grow up to become our future patrons, and it is important that they know where to go for research, and what is available to them. In fact, it may help them in their school work — and it may help them with many other tasks.

We love to see the variation in our researchers and believe strongly in educating future researchers as to the importance of all of our history. If you would like to discuss scheduling a class trip or options for bringing youth to the State Archives, please contact us!