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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

The North Dakota Archives and World War I

WWI Draftees

SHSND D0692. World War I Draftees shown in front of a building.

Harvey Hopkins in WWI uniform

SHSND 21085. Harvey Hopkins is shown in a World War I uniform. Picture taken circa 1917.

These past few months, we have seen an uptick of researchers in the Archives looking for information on World War I. This is at least partially because we are currently a century out from the Great War, as it was known at the time. An event that is so widespread and life-altering across the world evokes curiosity, reminders, and memorials.

You might think we would not have a ton from World War I in our archives, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s true that it is not our largest grouping of collections. However, we are a state entity archiving North Dakota history, and many North Dakotans served and saw battle, or pinched and saved and donated for the cause. The Great War impacted everyone, including North Dakota. Therefore, we have some collections related to it.

WWI Posters

SHSND 10935 P014, 10935 P345, 10935 P149. Several posters from our WWI collection.

One of our most popular World War I collections, #10327, consists of four scrapbooks of letters from soldiers that were printed in various newspapers from 1918 to 1919. These oversized books contain a plethora of snapshots into a different past, allowing soldiers to share details of their daily lives and experiences in their own words.

We also have collections that deal partially with World War I. Collection #10107, for example, contains some correspondence to and from Hazel Nielson o ver several decades. This includes letters from Hazel to her family and friends while she stayed in Europe during World War I.

We also have one of the largest collection of WWI and WWII propaganda posters in the country. This is because one of our past curators, Melvin Gilmore, felt that the war posters documented such an important piece of our history, he needed to save them. He sent out a call for these documents, and received them from all corners of the world. As a result, we have war posters that are in multiple languages and in different conditions. Some are pristine, some are well-used, and all paint an interesting picture of the attitudes at the time of the war.

Screenshot of SHSND website

A screen shot of the WWI page on our website.

More books, documents, and photos can be found searching our website through ODIN, our online database. You can also venture off our website, looking through Digital Horizons, or even skimming through collections we have earmarked as related to World War I on this web page.

This year, as part of the curriculum of Dr. Joseph Stuart’s Great War class at the University of Mary, we were lucky enough to have about 20 interested and excited young men and women visit the Heritage Center and the Archives to research different facets of World War I. The class was composed of college students of different ages and interests, and developed into a cross-discipline event. Some researched war propaganda; some researched specific individuals who served; some researched the components of the mustard gas used in warfare.

Many of the students in the Great War Class at the University of Mary had never been inside an Archives before, and did not know what to expect. They came as a class multiple times, and some continued to come individually. We showed them around our Reading Room and showed them how to use our websites to locate these collections, and then they were free to discover their truths. They were kind and courteous and so excited! Their instructor informed me that at the start of every class, they started talking about what they were researching, what they were learning.

This sort of collaboration is a really cool and different way that we can help new and continuing researchers. It was incredible to watch these eager young adults work, learn, and grow as they developed their research, and as they began to understand what people went through just a century ago.

The Great War was terrible in many ways, but it is helpful to study it and learn from it, for all generations. We are lucky to be able to provide that service, and to see students use our collections to bring new knowledge and perspectives to an old story.

University of Mary students

KFYR photo. One of the students worked at our local news station, and put together a report that aired on local news channels of the work they were doing, still available to read on this page.

Many of the students in the Great War Class at the University of Mary had never been inside an Archives before, and did not know what to expect. They came as a class multiple times, and some continued to come individually. We showed them around our Reading Room and showed them how to use our websites to locate these collections, and then they were free to discover their truths. They were kind and courteous and so excited! Their instructor informed me that at the start of every class, they started talking about what they were researching, what they were learning.

This sort of collaboration is a really cool and different way that we can help new and continuing researchers. It was incredible to watch these eager young adults work, learn, and grow as they developed their research, and as they began to understand what people went through just a century ago.

The Great War was terrible in many ways, but it is helpful to study it and learn from it, for all generations. We are lucky to be able to provide that service, and to see students use our collections to bring new knowledge and perspectives to an old story.

Making It Digital: The Coolest Thing

The Treehouse under construction

Left: Expansion phase pictured here is of the Treehouse children’s exhibit, now fully finished and ready to go. Each phase seemed like a new gift to unwrap. (Photo by Brian Austin)

Right: This photo is of my supervisor and me at the Legislative Reception, where we were allowed into the construction areas. I had to wear a hard hat and a vest. Other staff here (Becky Barnes) decorated my hard hat so I could feel more myself.

When the State Historical Society’s expansion occurred, a lot of planning went into the exhibits that would populate the new and existing spaces. While I was uninvolved with that process in my role here, I really was eager to see what would be used. Staff who were not part of the installation process were not given ready access to the areas (understandably, or they may have had a few of us—okay, me—underfoot). So whenever we were given permission to sneak over and watch construction going on, or see a hint of what was going to be installed, it was exciting.

But I admit, as excited as I was for everything else, I really was looking to see what audio resources might be used from the State Archives.

I’ve talked about audio and video resources several times before; I wrote about conducting oral history interviews in my second blog post, and discussed the idea of transcripts of these interviews (or lack thereof), in my third blog post. I often group audio and video resources together, because there are some similarities between the two, and because they do go together in many ways. However, I primarily work with the audio files of these types of collections.While both are very important, the audio files are a little more dear to my heart.

We have various types of audio formats housed at the State Historical Society. Reel-to-reel, audio cassettes, microcassettes, records, and CDs are typical items in our collections. We also have some files that are formed or created as digital files. Just as is the case with any other collection, all of these must be stored specifically and properly in cooler conditions, and monitored for breakdown of materials.

Unlike some other items, however, the intrinsic historic value of the item has little to do with the structure of the format (which does admittedly still provide us with history and a timeline, showing the technology at the time). The value comes from accessing what is on the cassette, or record, or CD. Which means, we really need to find ways to preserve it so we can continue to use it.

A Sesame Street Christmas

This is the elusive book-on-tape set I listened to so frequently when I was a young girl.

When I was a very little girl, cassettes were all the rage. (It was the 1980s and 1990s, after all.) I loved listening to all sorts of things, including music, and books on tape. I had one book on tape (A Sesame Street Christmas) that I listened to so many times, I wore the tape out. My mother actually purchased several more copies for me, because I kept wearing them out. I had other cassettes that I listened to so frequently that the tape pulled off of the reels, or wrinkled, or just jammed up in the tape player.

Obviously, the act of playing something so you can listen to it can cause wear or damage. But historic interviews and moments captured in time—those can’t be repurchased or reproduced. People want to interact with their past, and as archivists, we also want people to interact with their past. If we have an item here, we want to keep it here for the future—but we also want you to be able to hear the voice of your great-grandmother who settled in Minto in 1900.

Since around 2009, I have been increasingly working with these various audio components, transferring them to digital audio files. We did these only on request before I began working with these collections, and we did not store the files, or even have procedures set to name the files. In the years since, I have learned a ton about how to work with these formats.

Today, I have a set-up that allows me to plug different types of audio equipment into my computers and run the content through the software we use, the free program Audacity, transferring old audio to the very new digital formats. I save each file as an MP3, which is more compressed and easily accessed, as well as WAV, which is a more standardized, uncompressed file.

Fast forward to the opening of the exhibits of the State Historical Society’s expanded museum.

Sarah using touch table

This touchscreen hub is located in the museum galleries and has a plethora of veterans’ histories on it.

Our museum space is a treasure trove of items from all across the agency. I am pleased to say that both video and audio files from the Archives did appear in the exhibits, along with maps, photos, and other documents. But nothing quite made me feel the same as when I found one of the hubs that had on it, among other things, oral interviews of a few veterans that I had both interviewed and digitized.

Occasionally, I hear other bits of interviews that I have digitized, or recognize names from interviews I have worked with. Some of them are from interviews I have done myself, but many more are ones that I simply worked with years after the fact. For me, it has become a point of personal pride. You start to become protective of these files. You want to make them their best and help them find their way into the world. You have made these items ready for the future. It’s the coolest thing.