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.

Digitizing Newspapers In-House

My October 2018 blog discussed our plan to digitize newspapers beyond what we have done with Chronicling America. We began by sending microfilm to our vendor, Advantage Preservation, who digitizes and processes newspapers from the microfilm. In 2019, we were able to purchase a microfilm scanner so we could do the scanning and processing in-house.

Mekel Mach12 microfilm scanner

The Mekel MACH12 microfilm scanner

The MACH12 scanner is amazing! It scans a roll of microfilm with about 1,000 images in about six minutes. For some weekly newspapers, that is a whole year of issues.

The MACH12 in action

After scanning, we use the Quantum Process software to make any necessary adjustments to the pages, making sure the scans are clear and easily readable. This is necessary for a successful optical character recognition (OCR) process, which makes the text searchable. After adjusting the scans, we create two digital files for each page–a TIFF and a PDF. The TIFF serves as our preservation copy. This copy of the scan ends up in our digital repository for preservation. The PDF is our presentation copy. This copy is transferred to Advantage Preservation to upload to the North Dakota newspaper site for searching by the public. You can either select a title to search or simply search across all the titles by entering your keyword or a person’s name in the search box.

Screenshot of OCR program

Running optical character recognition (OCR) from home

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the social distancing orders have many of us working from home. Finding work to do from home could have been a challenge, but working on scanned newspapers from home became a reality with the help of Zoho Assist software that allows me to access the PC connected to the microfilm scanner. The Beulah newspapers (1914-2017) are my focus at the moment. Look for them to be up on the site in the next few months.

Mekel scanner and PC

Scanning with the Mekel and PC

The Sanish and New Town newspapers will be next. Both the Beulah and New Town public libraries applied for and received grants from the State Library to have this done, with the permission of the newspaper publishers. For more information on costs and funding opportunities for your community newspapers to be digitized, please contact me at

American Archives Month: Saving Moving Images

For years I’ve talked and written about the importance of saving moving images. Whether moving images are television news stories, athletic events, a family event, a picnic, parade, or simply people in their daily lives, they should be preserved for present and future generations. Moving image brings an event to life. Seeing an event is so much more powerful than just hearing or reading about it.

The State Archives has a large collection of moving images that originate from a number of sources including local newscasts, sportscasts, government agencies, filmmakers, and home movie enthusiasts. These collections show real people and provide a viewing window into people and events of the past.

Preserving moving image is a challenge as the equipment to play the media becomes more difficult to find and maintain. Through the years, transferring an older format to another, more usable format has been the standard practice. Thirty years ago, 16mm film would be transferred to a VHS or U-matic ¾” tape. As that practice became dated, a transfer to a DVD was more convenient to users and preservation. Today, using the original format if possible, we convert moving image to a digital format that can be saved on a server. A digital file is convenient because we can easily edit it and share it with patrons in a timely manner.

inside video camera with 8mm film

As a frequent user and preservationist of the State Historical Society’s moving image collection, I also promote the importance and methods of saving these keepsakes. That is why we have partnered with the Al Larvick Conservation Fund to host Home Movie Day.

Home Movie Day is a worldwide opportunity for organizers to help the local community access their old films and videotapes while sharing their memories and family lore handed down through generations. Beginning Oct. 19, 2019, the first official Home Movie Day will take place in North Dakota at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum. Additional programs will follow Oct. 20 in Valley City and Oct. 22 in Grand Forks.

The idea of bringing your analog mementos into the modern digital age can be daunting for a number of reasons. Digitization can be expensive and can also be a confusing process. Visitors who bring their family movies to a Home Movie Day are able to observe as their film reel or videotape is shown and saved for future generations. These one-afternoon digitizing events can jump-start a genealogy project and give a glimpse into the treasures that may have been hiding at the bottom of a closet for years, if not decades.

Click here for more information and to sign up for an event.

For those who would like to get some of their analog media digitized in Bismarck or Valley City, we recommend reserving a digitization spot in advance by contacting Shane Molander at 701.328.3570 or

Archiving the North Dakota Legislative Assembly

The North Dakota Legislative Assembly meets every odd year to determine the state’s budget and whether new laws or changes to current laws need to be made. State agency leaders testify in front of appropriation committees to explain why their proposed budget is necessary to fulfill their commitment to the people of the state. People from all walks of life contact their senators and representatives to express their beliefs about what is right and what is wrong for North Dakota. Whether it’s business owners wanting to be open Sunday mornings, the energy industry seeking tax breaks, or the livestock industry seeking more stringent restrictions on cattle imports, a plethora of issues comes before the legislature each session.

As the repository for state government records of historical value, the North Dakota State Archives collects much of the work accomplished during (and in between) these legislative sessions. We have archived all the bills and resolutions introduced in the House and Senate since statehood in 1889. Probably one of the more interesting and most requested sets of records we archive is the written and recorded testimony from standing committee hearings. These audio tapes run from 1977 to 2005. The majority is on mini-cassette tapes, organized chronologically and by committee and bill number (digital recording of these hearings began in 2007). Because many bills resurface in subsequent sessions, interested parties will often look back and listen to what opponents and proponents said about the bill as they prepare for an upcoming hearing.

The State Archives also preserves videos of television news. Our collection includes substantial television coverage of legislative issues in North Dakota from the 1970s through the 1990s. For example, the blue laws, or Sunday restrictions on sales, have garnered much attention for decades. This session features a bill that would repeal the last of the blue laws, allowing all stores to open before noon on Sundays. Below are a few clips I picked out from our Meyer Television (KFYR-TV) news collection about blue law legislation, as well as the wrap-up report from the final day of the 1989 session. Enjoy!

Digitizing Newspapers beyond Chronicling America

About a year ago, blogger Sarah Walker wrote a piece on how wonderful the web portal Chronicling America is for searching newspapers. And it certainly is wonderful! By next summer there will be more than 400,000 pages of North Dakota newspapers from about 50 titles of various lengths available online. This is significant! However, Chronicling America includes only select newspapers prior to 1964. With millions of pages of newspapers on microfilm here in the State Archives and uncertainty about the availability of continuous grant funding to digitize them, it is time to put together a sustained newspaper digitization plan that provides easy searchability and is free to all users.

Newspaper article announcing the marriage of Donna Brandvold and Gary Molander

Digitized newspapers make for easy genealogy.

Many states participating in the National Digital Newspaper Project, or Chronicling America, have had additional newspapers beyond this project digitized. One vendor that caught our interest while researching our own such project is Advantage Preservation in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. They contracted with the Divide County Public Library to digitize the area newspapers from microfilm created by the North Dakota State Archives. Being a Divide County native, it certainly captured my interest as I was able to search for relatives — and even myself!

The Divide County newspaper site is simple and easy to search. It is not as accurate or powerful as Chronicling America, but the papers can be digitized at a fraction of the cost, making it easier for us to accommodate the real demand for word-searchable, digital newspapers.

With the blessing of the North Dakota Newspaper Association, we are partnering with local groups and newspaper publishers interested in having their newspaper online and searchable. With the financial support of the Traill County Historical Society, we recently sent some of our master negative microfilm of the Hillsboro Banner to Advantage for digitization. When completed, it will be on a website like the Divide County newspapers. There are several other communities across North Dakota interested in doing the same. Eventually we will have all the digitized newspapers accessible through our State Archives website, with the capability of doing one search across all of them. To get an idea of what it may look like, you can view the Iowa digital newspapers.

If you or your organization is interested in having your local newspapers digitized, I would happy to discuss the possibilities and cost in more detail. I can be reached by email at or phone at 701.328.3570.

Newspaper article titled Maroons avenge Plentywood loss; lose to tough New Town

Number 45 with his back to the camera is Todd Wash, current defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars of the National Football League. How cool is that!

Charles Lindbergh Visits Fargo

Ninety years ago, Minnesota’s Charles Lindbergh became perhaps the most famous aviator in the world when he made the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. On May 20, 1927, Lindbergh took off in the Spirit of St. Louis from Roosevelt Field near New York City, and after 3,600 miles in 33.5 hours he landed near Paris to thousands of cheering people.

Lindbergh’s heroic flight thrilled people throughout the world. He was honored with awards, celebrations, and parades. President Calvin Coolidge gave Lindbergh the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Flying Cross. To promote and encourage aviation-related research, Lindbergh, sponsored by the Daniel Guggenheim Fund, went on a three-month tour of the country in his airplane, the Spirit of St. Louis. On August 26, 1927, he landed in Fargo.

Advertisement in Fargo Forum leading up to Lindbergh's 1927 visit

One of the many advertisements in the Fargo Forum leading up to Lindbergh’s 1927 visit

Lindbergh’s arrival to town is described in this excerpt from The Fargo Forum – August 26, 1927 Evening Edition:

He turned and twisted around the city, his plane at an altitude low enough so that many of his downtown watchers believed they could see the nation’s hero in his enclosed cab.  His flight over the city turned to the flying field, circled it in a huge sweep once, and then, evidently seeking to inspect it closer, dropped near the ground and circled it three times before ‘snaking’ his machine to the ground.

Advertisement in Fargo Forum leading up to Lindbergh's 1927 visit

One of the many advertisements in the Fargo Forum leading up to Lindbergh’s 1927 visit

Lindbergh would spend the night in Fargo after his hero’s welcome and speech. He flew to Sioux Falls, SD, the next day.

The State Archives recently completed digitizing the Meyer Broadcasting/KFYR ¾” tapes that date from 1976-1998. During that project, I came across Lindberg’s Fargo landing on one of the tapes. KFYR reporter Dick Heidt did a story on the 50th anniversary of Lindbergh’s historic flight and visit to Fargo.  The attached clip from 1977 includes an interview with Basil Kolosky, an amateur photographer from rural Georgetown, Minn., and shows film footage that Kolosky took during the actual event of 1927. So, not only are we marking the 90th anniversary of the Lindbergh’s flight and tour, but also the 40th anniversary of the KFYR-TV story on the 50th anniversary of Lindbergh’s great feat!

Enjoy the clip!

Muhammad Ali in North Dakota? Discovering a Film Treasure in State Archives

Working with Archives’ film collections, it’s not out of the ordinary to come across something special once in a while. On January 26 I was searching through our film database for a requested topic when I spotted “Muhammad Ali” in a description. Immediately I figured this was a clip from the national news or something, and then I read the whole thing: “WDAZ Muhammed Ali talks with Boyd Christenson at the train depot.” “Wow!” I thought. “What could this be?” The database indicated it had not been digitized, so I went back to the storage vault and pulled core 2490 from the WDAY/WDAZ TV news collection 10351. It is 16mm film on a core with a total of 20 segments. The clip is nearly eight minutes and is a treasure.

For those too young to have been around during Ali’s boxing career here is a little refresher:

Muhammad Ali was born in 1942 as Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky. He won the gold medal for boxing in the 1960 Olympics, turned professional boxer, and became the second youngest heavyweight champion of the world in 1964. Clay would convert to Islam in the 1960s and change his name to Muhammed Ali. He had his title stripped from him and was banned from boxing for three years for refusing to be inducted into the armed forces because of his religion and his anti-Vietnam war stance. He was later acquitted. Following his suspension, Ali would capture, lose, and recapture the heavyweight title several times throughout the 1970s. His last fight was in 1981. In 1984 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He passed away on June 3, 2016.

On January 27, 1969, Ali, AKA “The Greatest,” was in North Dakota. North Dakota Sportscaster and eventual Sportswriter Hall of Famer Boyd Christenson of WDAY TV in Fargo interviewed Ali at the Fargo train station. In the interview, Ali speaks about civil rights, black society, and……the weather! How else could The Greatest have ended up in Fargo?

The following day the Forum read, “The champ, unstoppable in the ring, was decked here Monday by the North Dakota weather en route from his New York home to the west coast by car. Ali found the northern climate too much for a left jab and ended up in a snow bank.”

Enjoy the clips! Take a look at the full clip and a short one where Ali tells us why he’s in Fargo.