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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

These Are A Few of My Favorite Things: Audiovisual History

Images from 00032

Images from 00032, a photo collection that correlates with oral histories in our manuscript collection 10157. The images in this collection encompass a broad view of North Dakota.

I think it’s fair to say that most of us have one (or several) favorite components of our job, or at least have favorite collections or objects that we work with. Patrons and visitors ask us this sort of question frequently, so most of us have probably put some thought into the question. For example, my fellow blogger and coworker Lindsay loves MSS 10190, the Will Family collection.

There are multiple collections and even specific items within them that I truly enjoy and use frequently. But sometimes you work with a collection enough that it becomes part of you. For me, this is MSS 10157, the North Dakota Oral History Project. I often call it “my” collection, though it was created in the 1970s as part of the bicentennial, before I was born. It is a collection that I have been working with for quite some time now, and I am continuously both impressed and proud of it, for all of the history it contains and the use and memories it provides.

You might wonder what makes this collection stand out from any of the growing number of oral history collections we maintain. We do have a few, and I’ll be honest with you—I feel a little bit of love for all of them. They are all fantastic collections, and each time I “discover” a new one, I get drawn into the stories I hear within.

However, whereas many of our other collections are more focused, MSS 10157 is to my mind more of an immense snapshot of what North Dakota was at the time of the interviews and earlier. It is our second-largest oral history interview collection, numbering around 1100 cassettes, typically containing interviews with one or two people to a tape. The scope of these interviews covers the lives of the participants—sometimes their genealogy, sometimes stories about particular contemporaries or events, sometimes just their story of settlement. We have an interview with Ole Abelseth, who was a survivor of the Titanic’s sinking. We have an interview with Harry Roberts at Dickinson, whose father served as foreman of the HT Ranch in the late 1800s. Judge William L. Gipp at Fort Yates discussed his grandfather William Zahn’s service with Custer, as well as his Sioux culture. Nellie Hanson, of Grafton, was a female homesteader and served as a county superintendent of schools for a number of years. We have multitudes of men and women talking about their social activities, their towns, their memories. They cover topics from war to basket socials, and they are fascinating. There are also thousands of photos included, donated by some of the interviewees, or taken of the interview subjects at that time. These images also document a great and vast history.

Ole Abelseth Interview

Harry Roberts Interview

William L. Gipp Interview

Nellie Hanson Interview

My main role in working with this collection has been to digitize files, and, as we have begun moving into a new database system, to work with the item-level descriptions of each file. My other role in this, because I work at the reference desk, is to provide copies to the public. This is also one of my favorite parts of oral histories. These files can be easily located in the index on our website by family members who have never heard of these people or their stories. They can also be found by family who remember the interview taking place. Either way, they are able to listen to them for the first time or once again, to hear the stories, and imagine what it was like to live in North Dakota in a far more difficult time.

There are many cool objects in our collections, and we all work with different items, so it’s good to ask…you might find that little tidbit you never knew existed.

Image 1: J. R. Eide and his bride (name unknown) appear outside the church just after their wedding. While the women in the photo appear fairly solemn, the men are prepared to provide music and fun for the wedding celebration. SHSND 00032-BE-02-00002
Image 2: Members of the Monango Juvenile Band pose for a group portrait while holding their instruments and wearing their band uniforms. SHSND 00032-DI-03-00007
Image 3: Gunder Rust's snowmobile near Alkabo, N.D. SHSND 00032-DV-13-00013
Image 4: Image of interviewee James Driver Sr. SHSND 0032-IR-04-00001


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!