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.

Celebrating Archives Around the Country

I love a good celebration. Holidays and parties are all fun, whether it’s the Fourth of July, your birthday, or Talk Like a Pirate Day (this last was September 19, this year).

Well, here is something more to celebrate—you get to read an Archives-related blog post during American Archives month!

All Researchers Must Sign In

The entrance to our State Archives welcomes researchers, and provides an outline of rules for the Orin G. Libby Memorial Reading Room. Rodney, our dinosaur, is getting into American Archives month, but as far as I have seen, no one has asked him any questions.

Every year since 2006, the Society of American Archivists (hey, what do you call a group of archivists?) hosts a month-long, educational celebration for archives around the country. Archives (local, state, and federal all included) can use this month to remind and inform people about what an archives is, what records can be found and stored there, what sort of research can be accessed there, and more. The Society of American Archivists has some great resources available on their Web page. The Council of State Archivists also has some good links, which can be accessed here.

Within American Archives month is another special day of note, this one sponsored by the Council of State Archivists—Electronic Records Day (it was October 10, this year), which is currently in its fourth year. This day is meant to raise awareness about what place electronic records hold in the world. This year, E-Records Day is highlighting the importance of appropriate management of electronic communications in government. Some more great sources are available here on their Web page.

One way that some state archives participate is by sending out informational pamphlets, posters, and bookmarks in honor of this month, or by placing something informational on their website. Typically, this includes featuring something from their own archives (such as this poster from Montana, this bookmark from North Carolina, or this web page in South Dakota), or displaying information on Archives policies (like this fun poster from Pennsylvania, which you really should check out…learn why our collections should be treated like your Aunt Edna).

So in celebration of all this Archives love, here is a brief display of some items of interest from our own State Archives. These items, mostly scanned photos and documents, display a few moments captured in time. These are preserved through archival practices and thus are saved for our future generations.

Oh, and by the way—I’d call a group of archivists an archives. An archives of archivists.

Photograph of Indians drumming and singing

Photographer Frank Fiske was a native of the Dakotas who photographed many images of people and events around the Standing Rock Agency in and outside of his studio there. Here he has photographed some unidentified Indians who are drumming and singing. (SHSND 1952-00448)

Members of the first all-woman jury in ND

Fannie Dunn Quain, a female doctor from the late 19th century, was the first North Dakotan to enter and graduate from medical school, and would later help to start the first “baby clinic” in the state. In this image, she, along with other prominent North Dakota women, served on the first all-woman jury in North Dakota in July 1923. (SHSND 00091-00243)

Small boy in a tractor

This image of a small boy in a tractor comes from a collection consisting of images of family and of a dairy owned by the Gessner family around Penn, North Dakota. (SHSND 11091-00001)


The very large (approximately 153 linear feet) William E. Shemorry Photograph collection consists of images and office files of Shemorry, who reported, wrote for, and photographed for newspapers, snapping images of people and events around the Williston area, such as the First Lutheran Junior Choir pictured above. (SHSND 10958-1-52-8)

Custer Memorial Amphitheater

This image was taken circa 1958, and shows chairs and the setting at the Custer Memorial Amphitheater in Mandan, with actors of the Custer Drama “Trail West” in the background. (SHSND 00053-00006)

ND state constitution original draft

The cover and first page of the original draft of our ND state constitution (SHSND 31372)

Filling in the Gaps

Earlier this year while doing some routine collections work we ran across a very small, nearly microscopic fossil. After a bit of research we identified it as a fragment of jaw from an early bat (NDGS 1691).

Fragment of jaw from an early bat

Image of NDGS 1691, right upper jaw (maxilla) with four teeth (P4-M3) of a fossil bat.

Due to the nature of powered flight, bats are pretty fragile animals. One needs to be relatively lightweight to be a successful flier, therefore most bats are relatively small and delicate creatures. As you can imagine, animals that are fragile and airborne have a relatively low chance of fossilizing. Adding to this, bats also tend to live and roost in caves and trees which are areas that are not very conducive for fossilization. Due to these factors, fossil bats are pretty rare, so this was a pretty cool discovery.

What makes this discovery even more exciting is the information about how old the bat was. The fossil record of bats contains many large gaps where no known fossils have been recovered. Some of these gaps might be as few as four million years or as many as 15 million years. Considering that for most fossil animals we have a nearly continuous record of evolution from its first appearance to its extinction or to modern times, these are large gaps. Some paleontologists argue that the fossil record of bats is the least known of all fossil animals. Using a system called biostratigraphy, we identified the associated animals found with the bat fossil and determined that this bat fossil was approximately 33 million years old. This age happens to be right in the middle of one of those large gaps where only one other bat fossil is known. That specimen, located at another museum, has since been lost to science, so this specimen is now the only existing bat fossil from this time period. We filled in a large hole in the fossil record of bats! Some might say a missing link had been found.

This bat will most likely be a new species of animal previously unknown to science. It helps us to understand the early evolution of bats and will be studied for years to come. The two other North Dakota Geological Survey paleontologists and I visit the site where this fossil was found every summer and hope to find more. This locality is one of our more productive sites. Who knows, maybe next summer we will find another bat or some other animal to fill in another gap.