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!

If Maps Could Talk: Getting “In Touch” with the Peace Garden State’s Past

Hello! My name is Anna, and I am a history major and theology minor at the University of Mary. I have been living in North Dakota for the past three years and am loving every second of it. Since March 2021 I have worked as a library processing intern at the State Archives. It's an amazing job. As a library processing intern, I have had the chance to take on a range of projects, such as processing journal articles and magazines as they come in, changing call numbers on books, barcoding, scanning, and reshelving map collections.

So far, the map collection project has taken up much of my time here. At first, I didn’t think it would be that fun or interesting—just time consuming! Although certainly time consuming, once I got stuck into the project I realized it was also exciting and interesting. One of my favorite aspects of this project has been handling North Dakota and Dakota Territory maps from the 19th century onward, of which there are many. When I first started working with the map collection, I did not expect to handle maps that were over 100 years old. Each time I pick up one of those maps I wonder about its history, where it came from, where it has been, and what it saw. If only these maps could talk, the stories they would tell!

Map of North Dakota in 1889

This map, which was detached from an unidentified atlas, is one of many I have scanned. It has a probable publication date of 1889, the year North and South Dakota became the 39th and 40th states. SHSND SA OCLC06545539

When working with the large map collection, we begin by bringing down a stack of maps that needs to be scanned and entered into the system, typically any maps older than the 1920s. After the maps have been scanned, I crop them in Photoshop, leaving a thin line of black space to frame each map. From there the scanned maps are uploaded into the system, making them digitally preserved for easy access in the future. Then the original maps are placed in large folders and barcoded according to the accession numbers on each of the maps. Once the barcodes are put on the folders, the folders are brought upstairs to be reshelved in their respective places.

a computer looks tiny sitting next to a very large scanner

I spend a lot of quality time with this computer and scanner.

I may not be a North Dakota native, but I have loved learning more about the Peace Garden State through its maps, the names of current and former towns, and the changing boundaries of its counties. Each map tells a unique story depending on who made the map, when it was made, what materials were used, the purpose of the map, and so on. These various pieces help us to more fully understand the history of the map and the place it represents.

Williston Land Company map of North Dakota

Facts About North Dakota from the back of a map

Front and back view of a 1906 map produced by the Williston Land Company. Intended to promote North Dakota to prospective buyers, it is one of a handful of maps this old in our collection with information on both sides. SHSND SA OCLC757386209

I am very lucky to be interning at the State Archives and am grateful to the University of Mary for giving me the tools necessary to take advantage of this opportunity, which has enriched my understanding of my chosen discipline and will no doubt help me in my future career. In addition to learning about maps, I have also become familiar with the system used by the Archives’ library to organize and keep track of books, maps, journal articles, and other items. I was not sure at first what this internship would entail, but I have learned so much from everyone I have encountered at the Archives. When I leave, I will depart with knowledge I will use as I go forward in my life and career.


A young woman with below the shoulder, semi-curly, dark hair smiles at the camera. She's wearing a white shirt with red flowers.Guest Blogger: Anna Hobbs

Anna Hobbs is a library processing intern in the State Archives. Originally from Osceola, Wisconsin, she is a history major (with a minor in theology) at the University of Mary in Bismarck and will graduate in December 2021. Previously, Hobbs earned an associate degree in early childhood education from Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College (WITC) in New Richmond, Wisconsin.

Reorganizing Storage East: The Saga Continues

Back in May 2019, I blogged about my cataloging and organization project at the State Historical Society of North Dakota’s off-site storage facility, Storage East. Much has happened since then, so I want to take you on a tour of what the collections crew has been up to!

In early 2020, we purchased new shelving for the rooms to maximize storage space. Some already had shelves installed, but these were warped and did not meet our needs as far as adaptability. Those shelves were taken down to be replaced with pallet shelving. We also made use of existing plywood, which we cut to the size of the units to create shelves.

The collections team, with the help of muscles from our other State Historical Society coworkers, has been going through Storage East room by room to update the shelving. The process goes a bit like this handy-dandy numbered list:

1. Clear out individual rooms to install shelving. This involves tracking where the artifacts are moved, so we can still find them in their temporary locations.

2. Install shelving. Sometimes our initial plans get changed during the implementation process. Occasionally, whole shelves are eliminated to allow for the retrieval of objects, with enough space between the aisles for people and objects to move safely.

3. Planning the spaces. This is the stage where we get an idea of what types of objects will go into the newly cleared space. For example, because the collection has many trunks, we decided to consolidate them into one room. Then we adjusted the shelving to make sure it would fit all the trunks and other intended objects, and that the space was used as efficiently as possible.

4. Place Ethafoam. Once the shelves are in position, we place a sheet of Ethafoam where the objects will be stored; this ensures there is an acid-free barrier between the objects and the shelf’s wood.

A storage room is shown with empty shelving units on both sides

A (mostly) empty room in Storage East, with shelves under construction.

5. Moving in. Now it’s time to move objects onto their new shelving. Paying attention to any condition issues, we inventory each object’s new room and shelf number, so we know exactly where to find it when needed for an exhibition or to show a visitor or researcher. No lost things allowed!

A woman is kneeling on the top shelf of a shelving unit while two other women hand her a large trunk

Getting trunks into position with a little overhead help.

6. Celebrate the improved storage organization. The rooms we reorganized have huge improvements in storage capacity. For example, one room went from housing 62 objects to 148. That’s a 138% increase in objects housed for just one room!

The left image shows a room filled with desks and other wooden objects. The right image shows the room cleaned out and organized with shelves and trunks and other items neatly placed on the shelves

Left: Before reorganization.
Right: After we worked our magic.

Not only are we storing more objects in these rooms, but the space is now better organized and the objects are more accessible, making their retrieval both safer and easier (for the objects and collections staff). Wins all around!