Now and in the Future
The value of collections is revealed frequently and in often unexpected ways
“One of the most agreeable features of writing on the wartime Army is meeting the archivists and librarians who steer the erstwhile researcher through the maze of records. They are among the nicest, most dedicated people anywhere, and without them history would be a lot more fiction than fact.” — Geoffrey Perret, author of There’s A War to be Won: The United States Army in World War II
When your job is to maintain the largest number of collections under one roof at the University of North Dakota, you never know what someone will want or the reason they’ll want it.
“I love my job because I get to do so many different things and help so many different people,” said Curt Hanson, head of the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections at UND’s Chester Fritz Library.
As collection curators, Hanson and his staff are accustomed to handling requests from the routine to the unusual. Sometimes they’re from on campus. More often than not, they come from the opposite side of the world.
“It’s not as if we’re only documenting North Dakota,” Hanson noted. “Our interest doesn’t stop at the border.”
But whether they’re helping faculty update department histories, tracking down an interstate water treaty or looking for information on the origins of lumberjack songs, Hanson and his archivists do all they can to help researchers find what they need.
“Our mission is to preserve and make resources available,” he explained. “The whole idea of preserving collections is with the expectation that at some point, someone is going to want to take a look at the material. We want to let people use this material, research it and examine it so they can write, publish, and create presentations based on our resources.”
The range and variety of collections is enormous, spanning the beginnings of UND and key people in North Dakota’s history to events that shaped the world, such as the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals following World War II. A growing number of the collections have been digitized, and listings of the library’s major collections and their contents are available online.
Appropriately, the department is named after Elwyn Robinson, the late UND professor emeritus who wrote History of North Dakota in 1966, the first comprehensive history of the state.
“The Special Collections Department existed before the library,” Hanson related. “Beginning in the late 1950s, the History Department — including Elwyn Robinson — decided that the University needed to collect important historical documents.”
“It’s the largest collection of North Dakota history materials in the state,” said Kimberly Porter, chair of UND’s Department of History. “If you’re looking for broader materials that cover the state’s history, the Chester Fritz Library is the best place to do that.”
When Porter decided to update the history of North Dakota where Robinson left off, she used the archives of UND’s Special Collections to help write her book, North Dakota: 1960 to the Millennium.
“As I tell my graduate students, the library is where it begins and ends,” she pointed out. “If you want to do quality research, if you’re going to do primary research, a lot of that’s tucked away in Special Collections. If you do it right, your work ends up in the library as a published document or book.”
While UND students and faculty frequently use Special Collections to create research papers, theses, dissertations, articles and books, the vast majority of requests for information and materials come from off campus.
“Research is a very wide-ranging term for us,” Hanson said. “For every researcher who comes into the library, we probably have four or five others we never see who contact us primarily via e-mail and phone. We look through our materials on their behalf. We photocopy or scan materials and send them off.”
One of the library’s digitized collections contains the political cartoons of Stuart McDonald, who worked for the Grand Forks Herald from 1961 to 1967. The works of the nationally recognized, award-winning cartoonist are valued by historical researchers interested in political issues of the 1960s, such as the Vietnam war.
Several months before U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts died, the Boston Globe contacted Hanson for permission to use some of McDonald’s cartoons related to the Kennedys for an online Web exhibit. That wasn’t suprising but another request a short time later was somewhat odd.
“The state of West Virginia wanted to use two of McDonald’s cartoons in one of their state assessment tests,” he said. “Imagine that: A guy who was drawing political cartoons in Grand Forks, N.D., in the 1960s is featured in something designed to test the competency of West Virginia high school students.”
That’s how it is in Special Collections, which can be a boon to everyone from military historians to genealogists to experts on international law. People sometimes discover unexpected gems while mining the archives for information.
A well-known resource is the Department’s Family History and Genealogy Room, which includes more than 1,000 volumes in its Bygdebøker (Norwegian farm history) collection.
“There’s always somebody out there researching something, no matter how off-the-wall I might consider it,” Hanson said. “I’m amazed at the creative ways people use our collections. There are people going down completely different avenues that I would have never imagined. It’s our researchers, our users, our patrons who give value to our collections.”
Hanson recalls a PBS TV producer searching for information on William Bell, a UND student from the early 1900s who played an instrumental role in the development of the tuba.
“When we were able to find photos of Bell in our UND yearbooks, he was incredibly excited,” Hanson said. “He acted as though it was Christmas Day because we found a photo of Bell in the UND band. He was just thrilled.”
How much a collection is used or likely to be used doesn’t determine whether it’s accepted for the library’s Special Collections Department. Only with the passage of time can a collection’s value be determined.
For example, Hanson notes that 50 years ago, nobody foresaw the popularity of women’s history. Today, there’s a great deal of interest in the subject, which means that collections containing women’s diaries and journals, as well as records from women’s organizations and businesses, are sought after by those studying, teaching or writing about women’s history.
“We have that topic very well covered,” Hanson said, “even though it’s not something we would have been collecting back when the History Department began putting collections together. It’s how history travels.”
Another example Hanson cites are the Frank L. Anders Papers. Anders, a World War I veteran and Medal of Honor recipient who lived in Fargo, spent much of his life collecting documents and other materials on Gen. George A. Custer and the Battle of Little Big Horn.
Before he died in 1966, Anders donated his collection to the Chester Fritz Library where it went unused for more than four decades. Recently, a historian studying Little Big Horn found the Anders Papers to be an invaluable source of information.
“Even though a collection may not be used on a regular basis, we do everything in our power to preserve it,” Hanson said. “Everything we take in, we do it with the expectation that at some point in time, someone’s going to find it useful.”
When Hanson teaches archiving to UND history students, he delivers an important message: “I tell them that you may not know the people who come here to research a collection, and it may not even happen in your lifetime, but I guarantee you that they will appreciate what you’ve done.”
Patrick C. Miller | Staff Writer