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!

North Dakota Passport: A New Way to Explore 37 Featured Destinations

When was the last time you paused on a scenic trail to admire the sights and sounds of nature? Have you truly reflected on the significant people of our past while standing in a historic place?

The State Historical Society of North Dakota and North Dakota Parks & Recreation Department recently teamed up on a project to help residents and out-of-state travelers make the most of their visits to recreational and historical sites throughout the state. Taking on this project while in the middle of a pandemic made us think about things a little differently than we might have otherwise. We decided the way to go would be to promote road trips to destinations with outdoor sights and activities.

A par of shoes, pencil, leather book, compass, and hat sit around a North Dakota Passport book on a wooden floor

The next step was figuring out what the end product would be. What we came up with is the North Dakota Passport, an 88-page book featuring 37 destinations. At each location, participants can get a unique stamp. All but one of the locations in the book have an outdoor Passport Station where visitors can transfer the stamp to the book by rubbing on the page with a crayon. The North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum’s Passport Station is located indoors. Staffed locations also have a stamp available indoors.

A wooden post with an ND TRSP plaque hung on the top and a Passport Station sign hung on the front

Because North Dakota’s weather can be unpredictable, we went with durable, waterproof paper for the front and back covers. The inside pages are also a bit thicker than your average paper to hold up better when transferring the stamps at Passport Stations. We chose a spiral binding, which makes the pages nice and secure while allowing them to be fully turned.

We wanted it to be easy for people to carry the books around while exploring, so a drawstring backpack is included with the purchase of a North Dakota Passport. We also added a package of crayons, since we didn’t want people to arrive at a Passport Station with no way to transfer the design to their book.

Each location listed in the book includes background information, amenities, pictures, contact information, social media handles, must-see-and-do activities, and a fun fact or two.

This project was very collaborative between the two agencies—from design to text to marketing and everything in between. The staff at Parks & Recreation were great to work with, and I look forward to partnering with them on more projects!

A spiral bound book open to a page reading North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum with a stamp on it sits on top of a round rock with a glass building in the background

Where will you visit first? My first stamp is from the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum since I work there, but I can’t wait to collect them from all 37 state historic sites and museums, state parks, and recreation destinations! Share your adventures on social media using #explore701.

To learn more and purchase your North Dakota Passport, visit

Lost and Confused? Reference and Research in Archival Collections

As a reference archivist in the State Archives, I get to be the first and main contact for patrons researching towns, local communities, and genealogies or looking to access our government, manuscript, and photograph collections. I often encounter patrons who have never previously carried out research in an archive, are having difficulties locating relevant collections, or are just not familiar with enough North Dakota history to find what they want. People come to the reference staff when they hit roadblocks in hopes we have some extra knowledge that can help them out. However, I need to admit something. Prior to starting work at the agency in February, I hadn’t had the opportunity to do research in the State Archives and didn’t know much about North Dakota’s history. So how can I answer people’s questions correctly if I’m not even sure of the answer myself?

Luckily in the State Archives we sort and organize the collections to make sense of the materials—what we call processing. This allows us to determine the type of information a user or researcher can obtain from the collection. Archivists then create indexes, databases, and finding aids for the collections so researchers and reference staff know what each collection comprises, which is especially helpful if the collection is large.

A table is shown with folders, papers, and images scattered on it.

Here the Roy Johnson and Louis Pfaller Collection is sorted and organized into labeled folders for entry into the online finding aid.

Since I know how our collections are organized and what search tools to use, I can answer questions on everything from state high school basketball teams to racial inequalities experienced by non-white settlers in North Dakota. Admittedly, both are topics I know little about. But I was taught in my training that archivists need not be subject experts on the material we work with; we just need to know how the information is organized, and that is certainly the approach I bring to my job.

A website listing information for Manuscripts by Subject - Recreation / Sports - #11151

Here you can see an agency website search result for an audio and video collection on Divide County athletic events.

A webpage displaying the WorldCat database

A WorldCat database search on race and immigration in North Dakota netted these results in the Archives.

Ultimately, I think it is important to share how reference work gets done and the methods archivists use to help answer your questions for two key reasons: First, it helps break down some myths about archivists and what they do behind the scenes. And secondly, hopefully it makes you feel a little less lost as you begin your historical research. Rest assured, we’ve all been there!