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.

Archivist is My Name, Organization is My Game

When people find out I’m an archivist, I am often greeted with a very puzzled look and usually another question—like, “What’s that?”

On any day, you can find me processing collections of documents, records, photographs, or moving image materials. As archivists, one of our main priorities is to make sure items are stored and organized properly in order to maintain the longest record life possible. In this blog, I’ll discuss processing a large manuscript collection that includes all of these items.

Shelves with boxes of Frank Vyzralek's collection

Some of the processed materials from the Frank Vyzralek Collection

Over the past year, I and other archivists at the State Historical Society picked up personal papers, research, and records belonging to Frank Vyzralek, North Dakota’s first state archivist. Vyzralek was a passionate historian who researched a great variety of topics in relation to North Dakota such as baseball, beer, the city of Bismarck, crime, mills and elevators, places in North Dakota, railroads, and steamboats.

When Vyzralek’s donation arrived at the State Archives, almost 400 feet of boxes contained loose papers, photographs, and audiovisual materials. We had to determine how to best organize and store this valuable collection.

The first step we took was to establish series for the different materials. In the archives world, a series is a group of similar records. The series we decided on were Research Files, Personal Papers, Photographs, and Audiovisual Materials. Within the series, we then created subseries and sub subseries that reflected the topics and types of records with each series.

Box of folders with processed records from the Mill & Elevator Sub Subseries

Processed records from the Mill & Elevator Sub Subseries alphabetized and dated in archival folders

After the series, subseries, and sub subseries were established, we began the preliminary sorting. Most of the time, each box contained many different topics and types of records in no particular order. Along with the paper items, some boxes even had different types of artifacts like matchbooks and other collectables. These items will be offered to the Museum Division, because they are three-dimensional. This part of the processing took my colleague and I about three months to complete.

Newspaper clippings

Newspaper clippings regarding mills and elevators in Burleigh County in chronological order

When we finished with the preliminary sort, we began a more in-depth process, where we tackled each subseries, organizing the records by location or chronologically. Vyzralek liked to use newspaper clippings in his research. For one sub subseries, for example Mills and Elevators, it took some time to organize the thousands of newspaper clippings in a way that would be useful to researchers who will use Vyzralek’s papers in the future. After eight months of alphabetizing and organizing chronologically, this part of the processing was complete. During this stage, we came across a few live bugs and spiders. It added some excitement (and screams) to the process.

Boxes with binders of photographs

Processing in progress on photographs

Once we were finished with the paper records, we began to process the photographs Vyzralek took or collected. Again, we had to decide how to organize the photographs in a way that would create the best accessibility for researchers. We thought it would be best to organize the photographs by those Vyzralek used for research and those that related to his personal life, such as family and school photos. Just as we did with papers, we organized the photographs by location and date. Topics in the research photos include railroad depots, postcards, aerials of towns, churches, breweries, and other buildings in North Dakota.

Containers of floppy disks

Hundreds of floppy disks from the Frank Vyzralek Collection

Vyzralek stored much of his research on floppy disks, which will also be in his collection. However, floppy disks are now obsolete. As we process the physical papers, we also have to harvest the files of his research off the floppy disks to make sure the digital files are accessible to researchers, too. This entails finding a floppy disk drive, scanning for viruses, and ensuring there are no changes to the file during the processing of the digital files. Digital files provide more accessibility to the collection.

We are still processing the Frank Vyzralek Collection, but it will be finished in spring 2016. Once processing is complete, there will be a finding aid available on our website ( for researchers to use. This is just one of many rich collections of North Dakota history that can be researched in the State Archives.

Where Exhibit Ideas Come From

When visitors come to one of our museums or interpretive centers, the exhibits on display are the end product of a long process. Depending on the size and complexity of the exhibit, it may take months or years and involve just a few or dozens of people. But all exhibits start with an idea, a concept, a whisper of possibility, and often with the phrase, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could…”. Here are just a few of the places where we find exhibit inspiration.

Objects are continually being accepted into the collections of the State Historical Society. Sometimes there are a large number of related items from a single donor that can form the basis of an exhibit. A 2002 donation of more than 60 objects related to horticulturist Oscar H. Will became the basis for How Does Your Garden Grow?, our award-winning exhibit. Similarly, related objects can slowly come into the collection over years. Going on display this spring at the Pembina State Museum is The Art of Einar Olstad; SHSND acquired its first Olstad original painting in 1943 and its most recent in 2006.

Art gallery with Einar Olstad's paintings

The passage of time does not always give an object or occurrence more significance, but marking the anniversary of certain events can be an important way to encourage remembrance and reflection. We currently have two exhibits in planning that were prompted by upcoming anniversaries. In 2016 we’ll celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, and in 2017, along with museums nationwide, will commemorate the centennial of the United States entry into World War I.

Site Specific
Many of the historic sites managed by the State Historical Society feature exhibits. Each site has a unique and rich history which can be tapped to create new exhibits. Topics have been as varied as Buffalo Soldiers, the Cold War, and 19th-century French aristocracy.

Fallout shelter

Fallout shelter

Inspiration has also come from visitor feedback. There are a few perennial favorite topics, including quilts, immigrant culture, and Native American art.

What has been your favorite exhibit or what would you like to see?