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.

Surveying the Museum Collecting Survey

Last year, the museum collections committee analyzed the current representation within the state collection and noticed there were particular gaps of objects from childhood and teenage years, most significantly those items from the 1960s to the present. The State Historical Society of North Dakota is also looking ahead and considering how much collections storage space we will need as we continue to collect objects into the future.

To help us get an idea of what the people of North Dakota would most like to be collected and preserved from their childhood and beyond, the staff began conducting an online survey in February to gather input from lifetime, current, and past North Dakotans, as well as visitors to the state, about what the State Museum should collect.

We have received many great responses since the survey launched, and here is a little about what we have learned so far. I hope you like stats and nostalgia as much as I do, because here we go!

Here are the results as of Aug. 10:

  • 134 unique responses.
  • Representation from 37 North Dakota counties, with the most responses from Burleigh (34) followed by Morton (8).
  • The highest number of responses from participants born in the decades 1950-1959 (37) and 1960-1969 (32).
  • 230 suggestions for toys.
  • 239 suggestions for clothing.
  • 234 suggestions for activities.
  • 105 suggestions for “other,” i.e., stuff that didn’t quite fit anywhere else.

By object category, here are the top responses, as well as an assortment of other interesting answers.


Top responses: Barbie, GI Joe, Cabbage Patch dolls, Hot Wheels, LEGO toys, Lincoln Logs, toy vehicles

Random responses: Chatty Cathy dolls, color-changing toys, homemade toys, lawn darts, water baby dolls, Yu-Gi-Oh cards

orange barbie car with vintage barbie sitting in drivers seat


Top responses: Bell-bottoms, bib overalls, Hash jeans, jeans, jelly shoes, Air Jordans, scrunchies

Random responses: Toe socks, stirrup leggings, skinny jeans, paisley, hand-me-downs, Uggs


Top responses: Bikes, roller skating, baseball, books, board games, video games/game consoles (Super Mario Bros., Space Invaders), phonographs

Random responses: Cartoons on Saturday mornings, 8-tracks, chalk drawing, drive-in movies, local music bands

Duran Duran puzzle


Top responses: CD & cassette Walkman, inflatable furniture, boombox, clamshell VHS tapes, ordering Scholastic books from a catalog, teen magazines (Tiger Beat, J-14, Bop)

Random responses: The ”Macarena,” TV dinners, duck-and-cover training pamphlets, food and drink packaging, hairstyles (the Rachel, mullet, bouffant, etc.)

As someone who falls into the 1990-1999 age range, it has been wonderful seeing the creative, thoughtful suggestions both from my peers and people born in the decades before and after me. Not only are the responses helpful for us at the museum as we look to the future of the collection, they are also a great way to learn about what objects, activities, styles, and clothing have been important to children in North Dakota throughout the decades.

Is there something from your childhood that you think we should collect? Does it look like your county or age group needs more representation? Head to the collections survey here and make your voice heard!

If you would like to donate to the State Historical Society museum collection, be it a My Little Pony, bellbottoms, a boombox or anything in between, you can complete our Potential Donation Questionnaire here.

Online databases and indexes available for Archival research

For the past ten or more years, we have had increasing questions on when, how much, and what of our collections would be put online. While not all our collections are available to be viewed on our website, there are increasing numbers of databases and indexes that allow researchers access to more information from a distance. In this new age of living around COVID-19, online access to collections, databases, and resources is especially useful.

Below is a round-up of some useful sites that can assist your research from a distance. See what you can discover!

Photographs, maps, and other printed materials

(New!) Photobook. We do have some of our photos available to be viewed in various spots on our website and on social media, but up till now, only a small selection have been available to look at easily unless you were in the building. I wrote this and this blog post to aid with searching for and ordering photos in the past. However, this new site allows researchers to search and view a large selection of our images! Although not all our photos are scanned, any that ARE scanned will show here. This webpage is free to use and is keyword-searchable based off the information we have in our system. It is worth noting that not all our images are scanned and not all are identified. If you would like to order a higher resolution scan or reproduce and use the image publicly, you may need to provide a fee and get permissions, so please contact us. Search by keyword (Item Detail) or by collection number, if you know it (you can search through inventories here).

photobook website screenshot

Digital Horizons. You can still use this to search out images from our collections and from other institutions in the state—but you may not realize that you can now use it to read some scanned County History books, thanks to the State Library, as well as the North Dakota Blue Book.

Vital Records

(New!) North Dakota Birth Record Index. Birth records are closed for 125 years by North Dakota state law. Birth records older than 125 years can be searched out on this index. You must contact Vital Records to obtain a copy of the record.

(New!) North Dakota Death Index. Use this index to search out deaths that occurred in North Dakota from about 1900 to present (not including the past year). You can search by last name and date. This index was put together with data from the Department of Health’s Vital Records office. You must contact Vital Records to obtain a copy of the record.

Death records website screenshot

(New!) North Dakota Marriage Records Index. This index consists of pre-1925 marriage records indexes from our Archives as well as marriage record information (1925 to present) provided by the Vital Records office. Not all marriage records from all counties before 1925 are fully indexed and included in this index. We hold pre-1925 marriage records in our collections, but to obtain certified copies of marriage records, contact the county in which the marriage occurred.

(New!) North Dakota Divorce Records Index. This index searches for divorces in North Dakota from 1947 to present. Before 1947, divorces may be filed with the county or held in our collections. Check our online holdings available here.


Chronicling America. If you haven’t yet learned about this site, you need to check it out! It is a free-to-use, word-searchable database of an increasing selection of newspapers from our Archives and from other archives and libraries across the country. We use and refer people to this very helpful site all the time. (Read more of my own experiences here!) And while most runs of the papers only go through about 1922 for North Dakota, the Bismarck Tribune is now available into the 1930s.

ND Archives Newspaper website. But wait! That’s not all! For more newspapers in different areas, covering even more spans of time, check out this very useful website. Also free-to-use and word-searchable, this has increasing numbers of papers that cover early days up to present in various communities. If you are interested in learning more about how to get other local papers up on the site, please contact us.