‘MagicBox’ reveals future of history

Library’s cutting-edge display features work of famed North Dakota historian; public showing is Wednesday

Stephanie Walker

UND Dean of Libraries & Information Resources Stephanie Walker demonstrates how the MagicBox works, ahead of a Wednesday open house at the Chester Fritz Library, where visitors will be able to use the state-of-the-art interactive multimedia display. Photo by Jackie Lorentz photo/UND Today.

If you go:

What: Elwyn B. Robinson’s “History of North Dakota”: A Multimedia Exhibit

Where: Chester Fritz Library

When: Wednesday, Feb. 21 (4-6 p.m.) Refreshments will be served. Please RSVP to carol.herman@library.und.edu.


When UND history professor Elwyn B. Robinson published his “History of North Dakota” in 1966, he likely had no idea of the trajectory of his legacy project.

He may have known the book would receive rave reviews, find its way into high school and college classrooms across the Midwest, and become the definitive account of North Dakota’s past.

What he couldn’t know is how UND’s librarians, archivists and digital humanitarians could use technology to pull his history into the future. “We received a grant to digitize the “History of North Dakota” as one of the first two grants we obtained for open educational resources (OER),” said Stephanie Walker, UND dean of libraries and information services. “We figured we would do some kind of display, but then when I saw the MagicBox advertised, it occurred to me it would be perfect. It blends history with contemporary materials to really bring them alive.”

On Feb. 21, the Chester Fritz Library will use its brand new MagicBox – a multimedia display case combining tangible and digital content – to show guests what the team has done to turn a 600-page book into an immersive, linkable, updateable tool for a new generation of learners.

The open house event will allow visitors to use the interactive MagicBox to access the OER version of “History of North Dakota” through the UND Scholarly Commons – a new online research and creative works repository. The display will also include a first edition of the book, the desk at which Robinson sat to write it, and a video introduction by Curt Hanson, UND archivist and head of Special Collections.

“The MagicBox will be a great ‘hook’ for Special Collections,” Hanson said. “It will allow us to highlight some of our materials and encourage those viewers to visit this department for additional information. Special Collections is tucked away on the 4th floor of the library and anything that can be done to encourage people to wander upstairs is a great thing.”

Robinson’s record

Hanson says Elywn B. Robinson’s work was a flawless first pick for a MagicBox display. Robinson was a beloved faculty member in the UND History Department for more than 30 years. In fact, the Department of Special Collections was dedicated in his honor following his death in 1985.

“The University got a lot of Robinson when he was hired in 1935,” Hanson said, listing contributions that spanned written works, teaching and campus leadership. “Robinson was also a very nice guy. In the almost two decades that I have worked in Special Collections, I have spoken with many of his former students. By all accounts, he was a true gentleman and a scholar.”

UND has worked with several partners to digitize Robinson’s “crown jewel” book.

The Northern Plains Heritage Foundation has pledged $15,000 to help make “The History of North Dakota” freely available and to promote its use and dissemination. Original backing came from a bill authored by North Dakota State Rep. Thomas Beadle designating funds for OERs at state universities. The Robinson family has also supported the digitization project.

Walker hopes that by demonstrating what her team can do with a simple, solid book – adding links, images, letters, introductions, new historical findings, etc. – people will get a sense that history can be a living thing.

“It isn’t dead, and it doesn’t just sit in a closet. This will show some of the possibilities of what you can do with historical materials,” she said. “Archives are having a sort of renaissance, where it used to be everything was tucked away.”

Stephanie Walker

When the MagicBox arrived at the Chester Fritz Library in November, Walker (left) said, the entire staff was eager to unbox it and start dreaming of all the displays they could create with it. Photo by Jackie Lorentz photo/UND Today.

Digital magic

When the MagicBox arrived at the library in November, the entire staff was eager to unbox it and start dreaming of all the displays they could create.

After the initial “History of North Dakota” exhibit, Walker plans to change the content at least three times a year. She’s already had conversations with the University’s art committee to showcase a growing physical and digital bank of paintings, prints, pottery and more that may otherwise go unseen by the public.

Walker also envisions a partnership with Geology to create a multimedia presentation of thousands of 3D images of fossils collected and scanned by Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor Joseph Hartman.

The box holds unlimited potential.

“There are a lot of things in digital humanities that you can cross with computer science or engineering, and I think the MagicBox could be a good display for some of those projects,” Walker said. “I’ve been hearing interest from a lot of areas, so we’ll see where it goes.”

The library was able to purchase the MagicBox through funding from the Colonel Eugene E. Myers Foundation, which supports University efforts in art, exhibits and displays.

“This gives us an opportunity to do some work in the digital realm that was not possible before, and we couldn’t have done that without the Myers Foundation,” Walker said.