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.

One of our key missions in the North Dakota Geological Survey paleontology department is to educate the public about the paleontology of North Dakota. Traditionally this has been done through a number of tried-and-tested methods such as exhibits, tours, and public lectures. However, due to the physical nature of these methods, the people on the receiving end of this outreach are primarily local. While it is very important to interest our fellow North Dakotans, we must reach a larger audience if we want to have a broader impact. Within the last two decades we have added the public fossil dig program as an important, hands-on means of reaching both North Dakota residents and nonresidents, and informing participants of the importance of North Dakota fossils. This program has proven successful, and we are reaching a large audience that includes both local participants and some from as far away as Italy! The public fossil dig program continues to grow and interest people from all over, but it can be hampered by the cost of travel to North Dakota for nonresidents. This is just the nature of the public fossil digs—in order to enjoy the excitement of physically helping us uncover our rich fossil history, you must travel to North Dakota.

Four people digging for fossils

Man in a red shirt sits next by exposed fossil and is digging to reveal more

Public Dig photos from various sites we visited in 2018. Come out and join us! A few spots still remain for 2019, visit for more information.

Local news stories are a great way to reach a larger audience without the burden of travel costs on the viewer. However, unless you are watching your television the moment the news story airs and you happen to live within the broadcast range of the news outlet, you might miss it. We have been featured on national television programs such as Dino Autopsy, NASA 360, Prehistoric Predators, and NBC’s Today Show, which is wonderful; but again, if you aren’t tuned in the moment it airs, you might miss it.

The advent of social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) and streaming (Facebook Live, Skype, and Twitch) has dramatically increased our opportunities for public outreach. Instead of blasting out information to a general audience, we can distribute our message with surgical precision to those who are really interested, and who will likely share it with other like-minded individuals.

We have started a video channel on Twitch where we post videos on a variety of topics of interest to aspiring paleontologists, young and old. From molding and casting fossils to just chatting about an upcoming exhibit while asking for feedback from viewers, this is a new platform to engage not only a local audience, but potentially a global one. A true benefit of posting videos in this way is they can easily be found and viewed by anyone at any time.

Video thumbnails from Twitch channel

The North Dakota Geological Survey Twitch page showing various videos available for viewing by anyone.

Lastly, we have started using the platform Skype as a way of conducting virtual tours of the vertebrate paleontology exhibits, labs, and collection areas. It also gives members of the public the opportunity to chat with paleontologists. Offering tours and video chats in this way completely eliminates the burden of travel on either party and allows us to reach a much larger audience. Although nothing beats seeing fossil preparation firsthand, watching a video on Twitch may serve to inspire a young person, student, or someone looking to fulfill a bucket list item to visit our great state and discover the fabulous fossils of North Dakota.