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.

What is an Archives?

When I started working at the State Historical Society (as an intern in the summer of 2006; two years later, I became fulltime staff), I had been in the building before, but not behind the scenes. I received a whirlwind tour just a few weeks prior to being hired. It seemed like a huge maze. So the night before I started, I had this dream in which I wandered the underbelly of the Historical Society for days, coming across various “camps” (I can only assume this referred to our different divisions, like Archaeology and Historic Preservation, the Museum, and of course the Archives, where I was headed), where people were dressed in late 1800-style period clothing, living off the land, lighting camp fires, singing old songs to the stars above….

Needless to say, it’s not really like that here, although I have no problem donning vintage costumes (and at various times, I have). For a facility dealing with the historic, we stay relatively modern. In fact, the Archives gained its portion of our present expansion in 2007. (FYI—the term “Archives” can be both singular and plural. This post relates to the Archives as a location, and as it is one location, I will be using it in the singular form). We mainly received more elbow room, gaining a meeting area, office spaces and doubling the storage capacity…though we also increased the size of our public research area, the Orin G. Libby Memorial Reading Room, by the amount of one cozy nook.


This is the size of our cozy nook. It is named after Gerald Newborg, who was the State Archivist at the time. We planned to put some displays in here; right now, we have images from the Myron H. Bright Manuscript Collection (MSS 11075) up on the walls. This collection includes political ephemera and photographs. You can read more about the collection here on our website.

Two of my coworkers and I work in the Reading Room in shifts, assisting patrons with their research in person and through email, phone and regular mail. I also work with our audio collections, conduct oral history interviews, and do other tasks as assigned—such as giving tours of the Archives.

Whenever groups visit, I like to ask if anyone knows what an Archives is. Typically, very few hands go up in the air. A hesitant answer is given—“I think you have books?”

Yes, we have books. And journals, periodicals…


Head of Technical Services Rachel White reported the Archives recently accessioned its 100,000th book into the collections. We also have approximately 1800 different titles of periodicals. A selection of these books can be found in our Reading Room, but most of them are stored in the temperature-controlled stacks area.

Photographs, maps, audio and video footage…

Archives Specialist Lindsay Schott is cleaning some film that she is working with in her office. The audio and video collections are selectively digitized as staff time permits. They, plus the photo collections and microfilm masters, are stored in a temperature-controlled area. The freezer located in this space does not hold ice cream, unfortunately, but does a good job of stopping deterioration of film that is in pretty bad shape. We keep acetate and nitrate films and photo negatives in the freezer.

Not to mention the loads upon loads of manuscript collections, local government records, state government records…

Our collections are stored in the stacks area. We have over 100 rows of compact shelves which roll back and forth, allowing us to store more collections in a smaller space. Collections that are stored on the higher shelves have to be retrieved through use of a ladder if you are of average size or shorter, such as I am. You can see different sizes of boxes here; we fit the box to the collection. If we need to add to it, we are always able to do so.

Did I forget newspapers?

We receive daily and weekly newspapers from each county around the state. We store them until we have enough to put on a roll of microfilm. Newspapers are essentially acidic, so we microfilm them to preserve them. You can learn more about that here.

You get the drift.

Here in the Archives, we strive to collect and protect these types of “flat” materials. We’re sort of like a paper museum. Not a museum made out of paper—that could get messy. Especially during a spring thaw! But just like a museum, we collect, store, and provide access to items that document the past. We try to give our objects the longest, happiest life possible. We keep them cool and dry, in a darkened environment. We house them in boxes, folders and sleeves. And then we try to make them as accessible as possible.

Of course, everything at the State Historical Society of North Dakota relates directly to North Dakota, Dakota Territory, and the Northern Great Plains, so you probably won’t see your cousin’s step-father’s friend-from-Oklahoma’s family pedigree chart here. However, you can listen to Francis Densmore’s recordings of Arikara, Hidatsa, and Mandan; you can view a newspaper from Grafton, North Dakota, from 1882 (on microfilm); you can search through scanned images of North Dakota’s past.

Once you overcome the maze, you start to learn how much there is to discover. You will see the “secrets” each division holds—the keys to our past, present, and future.

Welcome to the State Historical Society of North Dakota's blog!

Drawers of intricately beaded moccasins, illustrating traditional designs of the Dakota and Chippewa people. The original journals and letters of explorer Henry A. Boller, describing his time at Fort Atkinson during the mid-to late-19th century. A volunteer sorting decorated ceramic rim sherds from animal bone and stone tools. A paleontologist who uses Legos to create molds of dinosaur bones (seriously!). An archivist converting audio reels of traditional Arikara songs to digital files. A research archaeologist measuring the molars of a Bison antiquus skull to assess its age at the time of its death. Were you given a “backstage pass” to the State Historical Society of North Dakota (SHSND), these are just a few of the things you might see on a typical day!

Have you ever wondered what goes on in the offices below the Heritage Center’s State Museum?

Wonder no more! This blog will take you behind the scenes at what is shaping up to be the most spectacular museum in the Northern Plains. You will also learn that we are much more than a museum – we house the State Archives, the State Historic Preservation Office, the State Paleontologist’s office (part of the ND Geological Survey), and more. Each week, a different staff member of the SHSND or one of its partners will give you a glimpse into his or her day. You will see pics of objects and records that are not usually on display, and be privy to thoughts and conversations that can only occur in a museum setting (i.e. “Who put these stone hide scrapers on my desk?” or “Do we know anyone who might be willing to donate a grain bin?” or “Sorry, but I can’t articulate this raven skeleton until after lunch.”)

If you had walked through our office in August, you may have passed by what looked like a crime investigation scene. Streams of yellow caution tape stretched across the room, creating a barrier between passers-by and staff. People wearing blue nitrile gloves were carefully inspecting and photo-documenting bones arranged in a bin of sand. In actuality, you would have been witnessing a standard condition assessment of a nearly complete wolf-dog skeleton that is on exhibit in the new Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples. This dog was discovered in a pit at a lithic quarry site near Halliday, North Dakota. It appears to have jumped into the pit after some bison meat, and was then unable to get back out after eating. It is about 2,300 years old.

Archaeology Collections Manager Wendi Field Murray (right) and Collections Assistant Meagan Schoenfelder (left) conduct a condition assessment of a 2,300 year-old dog skeleton (photo by D. Rogness).

Archaeology Collections Manager Wendi Field Murray (right) and Collections Assistant Meagan Schoenfelder (left) conduct a condition assessment of a 2,300 year-old dog skeleton (photo by D. Rogness).

We cataloged each element of the dog and thoroughly documented any visible damage to the skeleton. The bones tell many stories about the animal’s life. Two fused metatarsals indicate that a previous foot injury had healed during the dog’s life. There appears to be a cancerous lesion on the sixth thoracic vertebra, and the teeth are broken and worn. The skeleton shows signs of arthritis, indicating that the dog was at an advanced age when it died.

The nearly complete skeleton of the wolf-dog hybrid found in a quarry pit near Halliday, North Dakota (photo by W. Murray).

The nearly complete skeleton of the wolf-dog hybrid found in a quarry pit near Halliday, North Dakota (photo by W. Murray).

This is just a taste of the kinds of stories and experiences we are eager to include in our new blog. We at the SHSND feel fortunate to be able to do what we do, and we are so excited to be able to share it with you! Now if you will excuse me, I need to catalog some donated steamship wreckage…

Check back with us next week!

Wendi Field Murray
Archaeology Collections Manager