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!

Archives in Reel Life: Staff Weigh In On Silver Screen Hits and Misses

A video reel, camera, action marker, and tub of popcorn sit on a wooden floor with a spotlight shining on them

October is American Archives Month, which highlights the work archivists do as well as the collections, stories, and history we share with the public. I thought we’d kick off our celebrations in the State Archives with a discussion of the best (or worst) archival-themed scenes in film and TV. After all, archivists love seeing archives, records, and old books used in our favorite media, but some depictions better represent us and our work than others. I asked staff what their favorite or least favorite archives-related movie or TV show scene was and why, and here are their top answers:

A young brunette woman wearing a black shirt and black framed glasses stands outside in front of trees

Anne Loos, Audiovisual Archivist
In “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones,” Jedi knight Obi-Wan Kenobi visits the Jedi Archives, where the chief librarian, Jocasta Nu, helps him search for information about the planet Kamino. When no record of Kamino can be found, Obi-Wan says to Jocasta, “Impossible. Perhaps the archives are incomplete.” She tersely responds, “If an item does not appear in our records, it does not exist.” The “Star Wars” canon later establishes that Jedi-turned-Sith Count Dooku erased the record about Kamino from the Jedi Archives. As much as I want to believe that the Jedi Archives is infallible, this certainly raises questions about the vulnerability of its records to internal and external tampering. That said, if Obi-Wan had not reacted in a manner that would offend any library/archives professional and instead kindly pointed out that the gravitational pull indicated there was in fact a planet there, then perhaps Jocasta would have continued to work with him to get to the bottom of the missing planetary record.

A woman wearing a black tshirt and black framed glasses with her hair pulled back stands in front of a window with trees in the background

Larissa Harrison, Government Records Archivist
“The Mummy,” starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, came out in 1999 while I was finishing grad school classes in public history. It gave me and my fellow students an inspiring character in the figure of Evelyn Carnahan, a female librarian who is active in the adventure, not simply sequestered in the library. Yes, she is more an Egyptologist and archaeologist than your typical reference librarian. However, she uses her library knowledge to defeat the Mummy and go on more adventures. If Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones Jr. can spend more time in the field than the classroom, then Evelyn can leave the library and still be proud of where she gained her knowledge. The film also represents one of the few times a librarian is not depicted on the silver screen as a meek and mild woman in need of breaking out of her shell. Evelyn has a goal independent from the men in her life, and she goes after it, making her own decisions on her own terms.

A young blonde woman wearing a red, white, and blue plaid shirts sits on a brown chair smiling at the camera

Emily Kubischta, Manuscript Archivist
One of my favorite archives scenes is from the movie “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” Led by torchlight, wizard Gandalf the Grey visits a room filled with ancient scrolls, stacked books, and dusty documents to determine whether he remembers accurately the story of the One Ring of power. Teacup in hand, pipe in mouth, Gandalf reads the millennia-old account of Isildur, High King of Gondor, which tells of the discovery of the ring and notes the text (in the language of Mordor) that appears on the ring when it is submerged in fire. Gandalf uses that information to determine whether Bilbo Baggins’ magic ring truly is the “one ring to rule them all” under Sauron’s evil power. This knowledge drives the fate of everyone in the story as well as the future of Middle Earth.

Although smoking and tea drinking are no longer allowed in archives, I like this depiction of archives and libraries as places to retrieve common knowledge and information that has fallen out of use, providing a final, authoritative answer to a variety of life’s important questions. Although modern archivists store their materials according to professional standards to protect them from dust, cobwebs, light, and other deteriorating environmental factors, the system at Middle Earth’s archives apparently preserved the documents in their care for thousands of years, rendering them usable and useful when needed. Furthermore, a helpful archivist was there to show Gandalf the collection and guide his search, just as our reference staff are available for researchers at the State Archives.

A young brunette woman wearing a colorful tom and black shawl stands smiling at the camera in front of a stone wall

Sarah Walker, Head of Reference Services
I’m sure we all enjoy seeing our profession reach a wider audience through television and movies, but I also think these depictions serve a useful, popular culture link to some of our lesser-known materials, such as microform. While I still consider the scene that allows me to reference microform in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” to be one of its very few redeeming features (sorry!), there are a surprising number of other film references to this medium. A favorite of mine is “WarGames,” starring young Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy. I watched it for the first time after I had started working at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and while I found it enjoyable, I have to admit that aside from its anti-war message, the main thing I remember about this ‘80s-tastic movie was that Broderick’s character uses microfilm. Let me just add that I literally cried out in excitement when I realized he was using a microfilm reader like the ones we once had here in the Archives.

A young brunette woman wearing a dark v-neck sweater stands smiling in front of a beige wall

Megan Steele, Local Government Records Archivist
In “Desk Set” (1957), Katharine Hepburn plays Bunny Watson, the head reference librarian for the Federal Broadcasting Network in Manhattan. Bunny is an amazing source of knowledge gained largely from her years working in reference. But when Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy) is called in to install his invention EMERAC (Electromagnetic MEmory and Research Arithmetical Calculator), staff fear this “electric brain” is meant to replace them. This movie is great at covering some of the quirks of working reference, mainly the flood of questions from the serious to the supremely random that staff encounter. For me this movie shows that computers are good assistants, but nothing beats institutional knowledge within the information field.

A young woman with long blonde hair and dark framed glasses smiles at the camera

Joy Pitts, Photo Archivist
The Vatican archives scenes in the movie “Angels & Demons” show viewers an impenetrable fortress of knowledge. But real-life archives (and probably even those of the Vatican) do not have the resources to create a completely hermetically sealed, oxygen-fueled system of rooms to house archival materials. In the movie Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) searches the Vatican archives for clues to an Illuminati plot to take over the Catholic Church. In one scene, Langdon enters one of the archival rooms with a member of the Swiss Guard, and after a short period of time, an unidentified person shuts off the oxygen to the room. To escape, Langdon must not only knock over a huge shelving unit but also shoot at bulletproof glass. While it would be best practice to keep all materials in an anaerobic environment, only important materials/collections would ever be stored in such a manner. (Due to the slow pace of deterioration by exposure to environmental factors—apart from light, light is very bad—not all materials are important enough to justify the costs associated with the building and upkeep of such a system.) I have seen a hermetically sealed system at the National Archives for the Declaration of Independence and other foundational documents, but these were sealed cases not entire rooms. So please don’t think most archives have a system of these rooms that we hide from the public—that’s just silly.

A man smiles at the camera wearing a white and blue striped shirt and a blue tie

Daniel Sauerwein, Reference Specialist
There are a couple fun references to the use of archives or research collections in episodes of “The Simpsons.” One of my favorites is the season seven episode “Lisa the Iconoclast,” where Lisa Simpson visits the Springfield Historical Society to do research for a school paper on the town’s founder, only to find a document that reveals his darker side. Her research garners pushback from the town’s residents, but her findings are proved correct. This episode conjures up the issues sometimes faced by archivists and historians when dealing with materials that challenge long-held beliefs and interpretations about a particular location’s past. Another example is from the season six episode “Sideshow Bob Roberts,” when the character Sideshow Bob wins the mayoral election. In the episode, Bart and Lisa investigate Bob’s win and in the process visit the Springfield Hall of Records, where they view the voter rolls for the election and discover fraud. These episodes provide examples of how archival materials may be used to gain knowledge and enact change.

The Unglamorous Side of Historic Site Management

One day in the fall of 2018 when I was the site supervisor of Chateau de Morès State Historic Site, my staff and I hosted a bus tour. It was the off-season, and we were short-staffed. Two of my team were at the Chateau, which left the store manager and myself to cover the Interpretive Center. After we greeted the group and showed them the orientation video, they were free to explore the galleries or visit the gift shop. I was in the primary gallery interacting with several of the participants when one walked up to me and said in a sly voice, "You know, when you get older, your aim gets worse."

At first, I wondered what he was talking about, but then he quickly added, "You may need to have somebody clean up your bathroom." All other staff were occupied with their assigned tasks, which left me to wield a mop and clean the sullied restroom stall. While being a site supervisor can be a dream job for some—I know it was for me when I started–it does come with an unglamorous side.

A man stands next to a garden with many trees in the background

Site Supervisor Kyle Nelson pulls weeds as he checks on the victory garden at Fort Totten State Historic Site.

State historic site supervisors have a challenging job. Site supervisors are jacks-of-all-trades, and their positions can be broken down into many roles. For their sites they are the chief administrator, the human resources department, head of maintenance, event coordinator, program creator, lead interpreter, store manager, social media coordinator, marketing department, and even custodian. Some sites have large staff who help with these roles, but at other sites you might see the site supervisor get off the mower to collect admission, sell a souvenir, and then lead a tour.

On top of that, people expect you to be an expert and to speak with authority, especially on all topics of history and preservation. During my initial three months as the Chateau’s site supervisor, I was asked my first question about the historic preservation of a structure on the National Register of Historic Places (not my strongest area of expertise when I started). On the other hand, sometimes people also assume that your historical knowledge includes every aspect and minute detail of your site. While being considered a content expert in the ranching and meatpacking industries during the “Great Dakota Boom” and in the sophisticated home management practices of the aristocracy during the Gilded Age is an ego boost, there are plenty of humbling moments.

If there is a problem, for instance, site supervisors are the ones everybody looks to for answers and guidance. Sure, there are big, noteworthy things that site supervisors and staff do where they receive recognition. They create new programs that benefit tourists and local communities and deal with disasters like wildfires, runaway carriages, and roofs that have blown off historic buildings.

A white building with red trim around the windows and roof is shown with part of the roof blown off

A windstorm in June blew the roof off the girl's dormitory at Fort Totten State Historic Site. Assistant Site Supervisor Lisa Rainbow led the cleanup efforts as Site Supervisor Kyle Nelson was away at the time.

But rarely are people aware of the less-than-glamorous, behind-the-scenes work that goes into the job, like the site supervisor at Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site cleaning bird feces off interpretive panels in the morning or the site supervisor at Fort Totten shoveling snow out of a building with a broken window or crawling under a historic building in the mud to diagnose a wiring problem. When a security alarm goes off at a state historic site at three in the morning, the site supervisor must get up and go check it out, even if it means driving 30 minutes there and 30 minutes back. I know of one site supervisor who even chose to spend his anniversary at a three-hour city council meeting in order to represent the agency on an issue. Site supervisors step up and tackle challenges as they arise because it is what needs to be done.

I’ll never forget the time I was visiting the Oscar-Zero facility at the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site last summer, and the site was hosting a large family group. The staff did a great job. However, while preparing to leave the facility for their next location, the visitors exposed a problem with the plumbing, which resulted in both the men and women's toilets clogging simultaneously. Site Supervisor Rob Branting tried his best to expel the clogs and restore proper flow. He called every plumber in the phone book looking for relief but finding a plumber on a Friday afternoon in a rural community can be a challenge. Rob went so far as to walk out into the nearly dried sewage lagoon to see if water was flowing out from the facility. Now that is truly going above and beyond.

A man stands in the middle of many weeds

Site Supervisor Rob Branting walks to the center of a sewage lagoon at the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site to check on the water flow.

When I talk about my job, I often talk about how I get to work with fantastic colleagues. The agency and the people of North Dakota are lucky to have hardworking, knowledgeable, and passionate staff supervising our state historic sites. Our historic sites are in good hands, and I am proud of all our site staff's work, whether I hear about it or not. But for the record, I do prefer to hear about it.