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.

Imagine: The Rewards and Challenges of Beginning as the New Director During COVID-19

Imagine the exhilaration of landing your dream job at one of the leading institutions in your profession. Then, the less exciting tasks of selling your current home, saying goodbye to your award-winning team, and relocating to the other end of the country for your new job on an award-winning team. Throw in the additional excitement of settling into your routine in a new state, purchasing a new home, learning all about your role and the complex organization you now lead. Just think of the exciting new challenges – learning about your coworkers, getting to know how the organization functions, the kinds of things it does, the people it reaches, and of the amazing places you will go. It’s like the first day at an exciting new school, or that first day of college!

A man in a suit bends down on one knee and uses one hand to reach out and touch a gray and white decorative circle on the ground that says IMAGINE in the middle

Bill Peterson, State Historical Society of North Dakota Director

Now imagine doing all of that in the middle of the current pandemic. Saying goodbye to the old team was sad. Instead of an emotional hug over a cold beer with people you loved, mentored, and wielded the mighty sword of history with, it was online. It should have been battle-scarred history warriors enjoying a celebratory victory lap with cheers, back slaps, and grandiose tales of unimaginable valor. But it was something else. We still nailed it—we laughed, we cried, we said our goodbyes, and gave our well wishes. But the whole thing was dimmed by COVID-19 virtuality and the flatness of Zoom. We didn’t get fist bumps, and we will never get to have those hugs. Historians will never look fondly upon those pictures. I will never reminisce over those photos of treasured friends and colleagues in our final moments together because they don’t exist.

Fast forward to the first day of that amazing new job. I still rely a great deal on what I can observe. On those first days at the ND Heritage Center, I saw nothing really. There were no people working here, and there were no visitors. It was a modern, post-apocalyptical ghost town. I did observe just how clean and secure the Heritage Center was though. If civilizations from alien worlds were observing us in those days in early June, they would have watched custodial teams cleaning the building to a spotless perfection and the security teams constantly monitoring cameras and installing body temperature scanning systems in the hope of future visitors. The word “eerie” comes to mind.

A man mops the floor in a room shaped like a box with all glass windows.

Custodian Josh Masser mopping the terrazzo floor of the Northern Lights Atrium.

The ND Heritage Center & State Museum reopened to the public June 22. My first official day, after spending weeks with outgoing director Claudia Berg, was July 1. I was able to meet more and more of the staff as they came in from their remote locations to pick up work or to drop off something. They were a bit like science fictional scouts or prospectors returning to the ship for supplies and immediately heading back out to the frontier. Some staff are now back in the building full-time, but there are still team members I have yet to meet in person who are continuing to telecommute. Learning everyone’s name was a challenge for me. I had to work at it. And now, it was all for nothing. Bank robbers wear masks for a reason—they work. I am almost back to square one with learning the names behind the masks.

These first months have taught me just how much I have to learn about North Dakota. Nothing is quite as good at reminding me of my intellectual inadequacies as the bookshelf in my new office. It is quite the bully at 16 feet long by 6 feet tall. I have never had a problem filling a professional bookshelf or case with more than enough materials to impress your average professional. I read. A lot. Yet the hulking, half-full bookshelf mocks me. Constantly lurking behind me, growling sinisterly in my ear in its Stephen King- inspired voice, “I’M NOT FULL! Why am I not sagging beneath of the weight of North Dakota knowledge containers?” The bully never stops. It’s sulking hungrily behind me as I write.

A man wearing glasses and a gray suit stands looking to the side with a very large, mostly empty, bookcase behind him

I think I just heard the bookcase say, “FEED ME."

In late July and early August, I traveled to our various historic sites to meet the rest of the teams. They opened to the public as planned on Memorial Day weekend. On these trips, I learned so much and met some of the best history professionals imaginable. We manage some of the most amazing history sites in all the land. I learned another thing about the State Historical Society of North Dakota on those trips too. We love to mow grass. I think we mow the whole state. I am told people love us for this. The grass selfishly kept right on growing during the whole summer. Maybe it is a bit of a bully, too.

A field of mowed grass

Grass, the bully at Fort Buford State Historic Site.

A view looking from a porch with a bench out to a large mowed area with buttes in the background

Grass, the bully at the Chateau de Morés State Historic Site.

An outdoor view of a large area of mowed lawn with three white buildings and a lake in the background

The green bully at Welk Homestead State Historic Site.

It’s been challenging, but I am learning. This is an amazing institution, staffed by an incredible team of professionals. They are doing great work despite the challenges of COVID-19. I am overjoyed to be here and looking forward to all of the amazing places we will go together. I still can’t see a lot of how things are getting done, but I see the great results.

I know a lot of people have been severely damaged and lost loved ones to COVID-19. Through it all I have been very fortunate, and I am grateful that my wife, Susan, and I have fared so well while so many have struggled. We are delighted to be in North Dakota. If I haven’t met you yet, I look forward to making your acquaintance soon. When you feel comfortable coming to the building, stop in and say hello. To guarantee safe passage, I would bring a book to feed the monster in my office.

Stories Collected by Archives Help Answer, “Why did people do that?!?”

This might be one of the most frequently visited questions in my household. Some examples: Why did Germans support Hitler when he was so terrible? Why did humans enslave other humans? Why did George Washington believe that bloodletting would get rid of his sore throat (it killed him)? Why were some women anti-suffrage? How was child labor justified during the Industrial Revolution? Why do fools fall in love?

There are many curious minds in my household, including a wide range in the ages of our kids and young adults. Despite (or because?) of this broad span of perspective, these “why” questions come up a lot.

When they do, the easiest solution is to check my phone; but the easiest solution might not be the best. There are fascinating videos online about the algorithms Google and other search engines use to produce top results when you ask “Hey, Google” or “Alexa. …” But--are the top results accurate? Paid for? Unbiased? Politicized? Do Google results tell you correct answers?

In addition to questions of the reliability of search engine results, it is easy to get lost in a rabbit hole of responses, chats, debates and “expert” answers online without ever coming up with a solid answer.

As an archivist and lifelong learner of history, I am especially grateful during those “why” times that archives, libraries and museums exist. Because of the work of these fields and members of the public who contribute to them, we have access to answers to some of our most burning “why” questions.

Archives (and other cultural heritage institutions) and their supporters are a partnership: Archives could not preserve and provide access to human history without members of the public who see the current and future value in the movies, photos, book, documents and artifacts they donate to public institutions. Simply put, private archives would not exist without donations of important historic materials from their constituents.

The more we save, the more data we will have to interpret in the future. We will have a greater firsthand spectrum of the human experience and reasons for why people did that. If we rely only on published sources to tell our stories, we might miss out on the unique perspectives and voices that make us interesting as a species. Like anything else, published sources are a product of their times, and are written through the socio-political lens of writers and editors, biases and all. Firsthand accounts can provide raw data that can be analyzed and interpreted across time and cultures.

I’m not sure whether other generations anticipated these “why” questions. Based on the records they preserved, I think that many did.

I often wonder how future generations will view our time. In this “information age” there will likely be a ton of information for them to sift through. However, as in the case of search engine results, quantity does not always equal quality: How much of the available information will be by the people who lived it? If my great-grandchildren ask how we felt during COVID-19, what it was like to go to fourth grade during a pandemic, or why wearing masks was politicized, will they get their answers from a news site (which we know often report differently based on political affiliation)? Will they read comment threads on Facebook? Will they watch news clips of the various responses of political leaders?

Maybe it’s my bias, but my hope is that future generations will have access to read/hear/watch the voices of the many who experience an event like COVID-19 firsthand. The best way to do that is to start documenting daily experiences, even if they seem trivial or mundane. It is the experiences of daily life that future generations will relish for their authenticity and rely on to answer their own “why” questions, whatever they may be.

I think there is a misconception that you have to be a George Washington to be preserved in archives. This couldn’t be further from the truth. This idea prevents people from documenting their lives and experiences, which are the building blocks of history, the keys to understanding life and events of the past. The more voices that are available, the better understanding that future generations have of our time. I’ve included two examples below of materials that could be collected by the State Archives: records that my family kept during COVID-19 and a collection of newspaper clippings about the coronavirus pandemic that were collected and donated to the Archives by a North Dakota resident.

Covid-19 Newspaper clippings

Coronavirus pandemic-related news clippings from a variety of sources that will be a resource for future researchers about North Dakota history (MSS 11450).

COVID-19 Documents

My family’s schedule for our 9-year-old son during the early stages of COVID-19 in North Dakota.

If you are interested in donating your stories related to COVID, please use this link. We all play a part in preserving today to answer the “why” questions of tomorrow.