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.

Since the 2021 fall semester, students at the University of Mary have been able to participate in a work-study program at the State Archives. Participating students have assisted with scanning photos and documents, compiling data on collections used, as well as pulling and putting away collections. They have also written history articles for “Dakota Datebook” through our partnership with Prairie Public Radio.

I have been a work-study student at the State Archives since October 2021, and already I have learned so much! As a history education major at the University of Mary, spending time in the Archives has been an amazing supplement to my education. While working at the Archives, I have gained so much knowledge, not only about the history of North Dakota but also about the effect working with historical documents can have on your perspective. So without further ado, I offer you my top three life lessons learned from working in the Archives:

A young woman sits at a desk leaning back in the char. On the desk are a computer monitor, keyboard, mouse, microfilm scanner, and a couple other scanners.

Here I am scanning negatives while on the job in the State Archives.

Lesson 1: History is made by people, which is a fact we often take for granted. At the Archives, I get to interact with these people in a small way by reading their stories in newspapers and probate files, and sometimes even writing about them. Two people I’ve had the privilege of researching and writing about for “Dakota Datebook” broadcasts are William Gray, the burglar with bad luck, and Elfrida Trinkler, the supposed Titanic survivor.

So many lives and stories went into making the world into what we know today. It isn’t just the big, flashy events or the famous characters that we all have come to know, either. Yes, those are important, but what we may fail to realize is that it is the everyday people that keep the world spinning–and they are often why we now know so much about many historical events.

Lesson 2: The Archives and the online resources available here are vastly underused. One of my favorite resources is Chronicling America, an online database of newspapers dating back to the late 1700s. If I had known the extent of the State Archives’ offerings in high school, my research papers would have been so much easier. This is why I plan to integrate resources like the ones I have used here at the North Dakota State Archives into my curriculum when I begin teaching.

Lesson 3: There is nothing quite as humbling as studying historical documents–for instance, the naturalization records of people that immigrated here before and after North Dakota became a state in 1889. The realization that every person I read about had a story–even if I never get to know the full details–is a valuable experience I am not sure I could have in many other fields.

These are lessons I am learning every day and will carry into the future. However, there is still one more lesson I need to learn—how to tell people what I do at work all day … other than have a good time!