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.

Why Archivists Love Microfilm

If you’ve ever had a conversation with our reference staff about using the State Archives’ collections for research, you probably heard about or even used microfilm. Most of our popular collections, such as our newspapers and naturalization records, are filmed and stored on microfilm for easy access in the reading room.

Microform is the reproductive process used to produce materials at an incredibly small size. There were originally four types of microform: microfilm, microfiche, super-fiche, and microprints. Microfilm and Microfiche are the only two still created today; here in the State Archives you will most likely find microfilm reels.

Microforms became popular for preserving and storing old newspapers and records in the 1930s and continued to be widely used in businesses, archives, and universities until the 1990s when the PDF became an easy and searchable format for all users. But microforms are still a well-used and well-loved resource for us in the State Archives. Indeed, there are a number of ways using microfilm and microfiche support our archival values of preservation, storage, and context within collections:

1) Preservation: Over time the chemicals used in mass-produced paper causes it to become yellow and brittle, and the paper starts to fall apart. Newsprint paper from the 18th and 19th centuries is especially vulnerable to this decay. By filming the State Archives’ newspaper collection and using the microfilm copies instead of the original for research and reference requests, we can prevent further damage to the material. Another great feature of microfilm is that it is a very stable medium, in that the material of the film does not start to deteriorate as fast as other formats such as paper, which can last about 50 years, or digital file formats, which are sometimes only compatible for 10 years or less. Experts say that microfilm can last for over 500 years if stored in the proper environment. Having a microfilmed copy for researchers and staff to use again and again helps us preserve the original copy for future generations.

An original copy of the July 14, 1864, edition of the Frontier Scout, the first newspaper published in what is now North Dakota.

A scan of the same edition of the Frontier Scout from the microfilm roll.

2) Storage: It may seem obvious, but microfilm is a simple storage form that can contain tons of document images while still being compact and lightweight. One roll of microfilm that is 35 mm in size can hold up to 800 newspaper pages, which means multiple years of a newspaper can often be found on one roll. This is also helpful for storing very large collections such as the U.S. census or marriage records. It is much easier for staff and researchers to move and use a small lightweight roll as opposed to boxes full of heavy paper.

Here a microfilm roll is juxtaposed with a physical box of newspapers. A single role of microfilm can contain multiple years of a given newspaper.

3) Context: Archival collections are organized and best researched as a whole so the creator’s original intention and the purpose of the information is as complete as can be. Digitized archival searches that only return individual documents may remove important context. Case in point: If you only look at the one document or article you searched for, you don’t get the information you did not search for. A microfilm machine does not have a search function and won’t allow you to skip the surrounding pages easily, thereby preserving the wider context and allowing facts and information to be studied in the whole rather than in a vacuum.

Finally, the goal of all archives work is to balance preserving and caring for original documents with providing the best and easiest access to the collection in question. Microfilm may appear to be a dated technology to some, but it still fulfills this objective well and is a valuable resource to the State Archives and researchers everywhere.

A Capone in North Dakota

I love stories about the Depression-era gangsters, bootleggers, and crime bosses of Chicago and New York City, but they are rarely something I get to research at the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Imagine my surprise when I was shown this photo below of James Vincenzo Capone, eldest brother of infamous gangsters Al, Frank, and Ralph Capone, in our Frank Fiske photograph collection. Taken at Fort Yates, North Dakota, it shows James Capone, who by then was known as Richard James “Two Gun” Hart, surrounded by confiscated liquor stills. Immediately I had questions: How did a Capone brother end up in North Dakota as a Prohibition agent? And how did this photo come to be taken by the early 20th-century photographer Frank Fiske? I began searching through our newspaper holdings as well as the vital records available on Ancestry.com to learn more.

A man wearing a button up shirt, suspenders, bowtie, hat, slacks, and boots stands holding a gun in one hand while the other end of the gun is on the ground between his feet. Behind and around him are many bottles and jugs.

Richard James “Two Gun” Hart (born James Vincenzo Capone) with his collection of confiscated stills, 1926. SHSND SA 1952-00088

I soon found out that this Capone had immigrated in 1893 with his parents to the United States where the rest of his eight siblings were born. At age 16 James left New York to make his life out West, choosing to distance himself from his Italian heritage by eventually changing his name to Richard James Hart. He married Kathleen Winch in 1919 and worked as a Prohibition agent in the western Plains states.

Meanwhile, Frank Fiske was born in 1883 at Fort Bennett, Dakota Territory, and grew up around Fort Yates. He learned photography from S.T. Fansler at Fort Yates and though still a teenager took over the studio after Fansler left town in 1900. Fiske would continue to work out of Fort Yates, save for a few brief periods, until his death in 1952. While Fiske was best known for his portraits of Native Americans, the true relevance of his photographs comes from his documentation of everyday life at Fort Yates and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

A young man with short dark hair sits posing for the cameran in a white collared shirt, dark colored tie, and dark colored suit jacket.

Photographer Frank Fiske in 1910. SHSND SA 1952-00111

As former Photo Archivist Sharon Silengo has noted of his legacy: “Fiske produced pictures of the life that the Sioux of the Standing Rock Reservation really lived—they were involved in celebrations when allowed by the government agent, they competed in rodeos with other cowboys, they performed in bands on instruments that they were taught to play in their boarding schools, and they married in the white way including wearing the garb of a fancy wedding dress and dress suit, not their traditional dress that would have been worn in the past. These are photographs of the reality of life for Indians.”

Five men stand outside around many bottles and jugs of varying sizes.

From left, John Brought Plenty, Jersey Grey Bear, Francis Mossman, Eugene D. Mossman, and Richard Hart with confiscated stills and liquor, 1926. SHSND SA 1952-01623

While we don’t know much about their relationship, Fiske and Hart’s paths crossed when Hart was a special agent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, working alongside Fort Yates Superintendent Eugene D. Mossman to confiscate illegal stills and liquor in the Standing Rock Indian Reservation and surrounding areas. In January 1926, the Sioux County Pioneer reported that a series of raids on the reservation conducted by Mossman netted “many victims besides a lot of evidence and other paraphernalia.” Hart and officer Jersey Grey Bear picked up farmer Frank Slawa and “confiscated a five gallon jug of moonshine.” One of these raids was reported to have resulted in the removal of 25 gallons of alcohol from the reservation. Due to his skills, Hart was described by the paper as “a most crafty enforcement officer.” Fiske’s photographs make it clear just how much was confiscated in such a short period of time.

The photographs taken of the raid spoils and officers also shed light on one facet of the reservation life that Fiske would spend his life documenting. The photos preserved these events and speak to the impact Prohibition had on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Interestingly, according to records in Fiske’s business ledger, Hart purchased 12 postcards of these photographs of him for a total of $5.00.

A young man in a cowboy hat, neck bandana, boots, and long sleeves and pants stands holding a hand gun with one leg perched on a bench. There is a gun holster around his belt. Behind him is a backdrop with at least three tipis and some flowers.

Hart poses with a Colt .45-caliber revolver. SHSND SA 1952-06187

As for Hart’s efforts to keep his identity under wraps, a year before his death in 1952 his secret as a Capone was revealed to the nation when he was subpoenaed to appear before a jury in his brother Ralph’s tax evasion case. Fiske also passed away in 1952, and one can’t help but wonder what he might have thought about the revelation or if he already knew?

Archives in Reel Life: Staff Weigh In On Silver Screen Hits and Misses

A video reel, camera, action marker, and tub of popcorn sit on a wooden floor with a spotlight shining on them

October is American Archives Month, which highlights the work archivists do as well as the collections, stories, and history we share with the public. I thought we’d kick off our celebrations in the State Archives with a discussion of the best (or worst) archival-themed scenes in film and TV. After all, archivists love seeing archives, records, and old books used in our favorite media, but some depictions better represent us and our work than others. I asked staff what their favorite or least favorite archives-related movie or TV show scene was and why, and here are their top answers:

A young brunette woman wearing a black shirt and black framed glasses stands outside in front of trees

Anne Loos, Audiovisual Archivist
In “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones,” Jedi knight Obi-Wan Kenobi visits the Jedi Archives, where the chief librarian, Jocasta Nu, helps him search for information about the planet Kamino. When no record of Kamino can be found, Obi-Wan says to Jocasta, “Impossible. Perhaps the archives are incomplete.” She tersely responds, “If an item does not appear in our records, it does not exist.” The “Star Wars” canon later establishes that Jedi-turned-Sith Count Dooku erased the record about Kamino from the Jedi Archives. As much as I want to believe that the Jedi Archives is infallible, this certainly raises questions about the vulnerability of its records to internal and external tampering. That said, if Obi-Wan had not reacted in a manner that would offend any library/archives professional and instead kindly pointed out that the gravitational pull indicated there was in fact a planet there, then perhaps Jocasta would have continued to work with him to get to the bottom of the missing planetary record.

A woman wearing a black tshirt and black framed glasses with her hair pulled back stands in front of a window with trees in the background

Larissa Harrison, Government Records Archivist
“The Mummy,” starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, came out in 1999 while I was finishing grad school classes in public history. It gave me and my fellow students an inspiring character in the figure of Evelyn Carnahan, a female librarian who is active in the adventure, not simply sequestered in the library. Yes, she is more an Egyptologist and archaeologist than your typical reference librarian. However, she uses her library knowledge to defeat the Mummy and go on more adventures. If Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones Jr. can spend more time in the field than the classroom, then Evelyn can leave the library and still be proud of where she gained her knowledge. The film also represents one of the few times a librarian is not depicted on the silver screen as a meek and mild woman in need of breaking out of her shell. Evelyn has a goal independent from the men in her life, and she goes after it, making her own decisions on her own terms.

A young blonde woman wearing a red, white, and blue plaid shirts sits on a brown chair smiling at the camera

Emily Kubischta, Manuscript Archivist
One of my favorite archives scenes is from the movie “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” Led by torchlight, wizard Gandalf the Grey visits a room filled with ancient scrolls, stacked books, and dusty documents to determine whether he remembers accurately the story of the One Ring of power. Teacup in hand, pipe in mouth, Gandalf reads the millennia-old account of Isildur, High King of Gondor, which tells of the discovery of the ring and notes the text (in the language of Mordor) that appears on the ring when it is submerged in fire. Gandalf uses that information to determine whether Bilbo Baggins’ magic ring truly is the “one ring to rule them all” under Sauron’s evil power. This knowledge drives the fate of everyone in the story as well as the future of Middle Earth.

Although smoking and tea drinking are no longer allowed in archives, I like this depiction of archives and libraries as places to retrieve common knowledge and information that has fallen out of use, providing a final, authoritative answer to a variety of life’s important questions. Although modern archivists store their materials according to professional standards to protect them from dust, cobwebs, light, and other deteriorating environmental factors, the system at Middle Earth’s archives apparently preserved the documents in their care for thousands of years, rendering them usable and useful when needed. Furthermore, a helpful archivist was there to show Gandalf the collection and guide his search, just as our reference staff are available for researchers at the State Archives.

A young brunette woman wearing a colorful tom and black shawl stands smiling at the camera in front of a stone wall

Sarah Walker, Head of Reference Services
I’m sure we all enjoy seeing our profession reach a wider audience through television and movies, but I also think these depictions serve a useful, popular culture link to some of our lesser-known materials, such as microform. While I still consider the scene that allows me to reference microform in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” to be one of its very few redeeming features (sorry!), there are a surprising number of other film references to this medium. A favorite of mine is “WarGames,” starring young Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy. I watched it for the first time after I had started working at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and while I found it enjoyable, I have to admit that aside from its anti-war message, the main thing I remember about this ‘80s-tastic movie was that Broderick’s character uses microfilm. Let me just add that I literally cried out in excitement when I realized he was using a microfilm reader like the ones we once had here in the Archives.

A young brunette woman wearing a dark v-neck sweater stands smiling in front of a beige wall

Megan Steele, Local Government Records Archivist
In “Desk Set” (1957), Katharine Hepburn plays Bunny Watson, the head reference librarian for the Federal Broadcasting Network in Manhattan. Bunny is an amazing source of knowledge gained largely from her years working in reference. But when Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy) is called in to install his invention EMERAC (Electromagnetic MEmory and Research Arithmetical Calculator), staff fear this “electric brain” is meant to replace them. This movie is great at covering some of the quirks of working reference, mainly the flood of questions from the serious to the supremely random that staff encounter. For me this movie shows that computers are good assistants, but nothing beats institutional knowledge within the information field.

A young woman with long blonde hair and dark framed glasses smiles at the camera

Joy Pitts, Photo Archivist
The Vatican archives scenes in the movie “Angels & Demons” show viewers an impenetrable fortress of knowledge. But real-life archives (and probably even those of the Vatican) do not have the resources to create a completely hermetically sealed, oxygen-fueled system of rooms to house archival materials. In the movie Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) searches the Vatican archives for clues to an Illuminati plot to take over the Catholic Church. In one scene, Langdon enters one of the archival rooms with a member of the Swiss Guard, and after a short period of time, an unidentified person shuts off the oxygen to the room. To escape, Langdon must not only knock over a huge shelving unit but also shoot at bulletproof glass. While it would be best practice to keep all materials in an anaerobic environment, only important materials/collections would ever be stored in such a manner. (Due to the slow pace of deterioration by exposure to environmental factors—apart from light, light is very bad—not all materials are important enough to justify the costs associated with the building and upkeep of such a system.) I have seen a hermetically sealed system at the National Archives for the Declaration of Independence and other foundational documents, but these were sealed cases not entire rooms. So please don’t think most archives have a system of these rooms that we hide from the public—that’s just silly.

A man smiles at the camera wearing a white and blue striped shirt and a blue tie

Daniel Sauerwein, Reference Specialist
There are a couple fun references to the use of archives or research collections in episodes of “The Simpsons.” One of my favorites is the season seven episode “Lisa the Iconoclast,” where Lisa Simpson visits the Springfield Historical Society to do research for a school paper on the town’s founder, only to find a document that reveals his darker side. Her research garners pushback from the town’s residents, but her findings are proved correct. This episode conjures up the issues sometimes faced by archivists and historians when dealing with materials that challenge long-held beliefs and interpretations about a particular location’s past. Another example is from the season six episode “Sideshow Bob Roberts,” when the character Sideshow Bob wins the mayoral election. In the episode, Bart and Lisa investigate Bob’s win and in the process visit the Springfield Hall of Records, where they view the voter rolls for the election and discover fraud. These episodes provide examples of how archival materials may be used to gain knowledge and enact change.

Lost and Confused? Reference and Research in Archival Collections

As a reference archivist in the State Archives, I get to be the first and main contact for patrons researching towns, local communities, and genealogies or looking to access our government, manuscript, and photograph collections. I often encounter patrons who have never previously carried out research in an archive, are having difficulties locating relevant collections, or are just not familiar with enough North Dakota history to find what they want. People come to the reference staff when they hit roadblocks in hopes we have some extra knowledge that can help them out. However, I need to admit something. Prior to starting work at the agency in February, I hadn’t had the opportunity to do research in the State Archives and didn’t know much about North Dakota’s history. So how can I answer people’s questions correctly if I’m not even sure of the answer myself?

Luckily in the State Archives we sort and organize the collections to make sense of the materials—what we call processing. This allows us to determine the type of information a user or researcher can obtain from the collection. Archivists then create indexes, databases, and finding aids for the collections so researchers and reference staff know what each collection comprises, which is especially helpful if the collection is large.

A table is shown with folders, papers, and images scattered on it.

Here the Roy Johnson and Louis Pfaller Collection is sorted and organized into labeled folders for entry into the online finding aid.

Since I know how our collections are organized and what search tools to use, I can answer questions on everything from state high school basketball teams to racial inequalities experienced by non-white settlers in North Dakota. Admittedly, both are topics I know little about. But I was taught in my training that archivists need not be subject experts on the material we work with; we just need to know how the information is organized, and that is certainly the approach I bring to my job.

A website listing information for Manuscripts by Subject - Recreation / Sports - #11151

Here you can see an agency website search result for an audio and video collection on Divide County athletic events.

A webpage displaying the WorldCat database

A WorldCat database search on race and immigration in North Dakota netted these results in the Archives.

Ultimately, I think it is important to share how reference work gets done and the methods archivists use to help answer your questions for two key reasons: First, it helps break down some myths about archivists and what they do behind the scenes. And secondly, hopefully it makes you feel a little less lost as you begin your historical research. Rest assured, we’ve all been there!