Opening UND’s treasure chest of history

UND awarded major NEH grant to digitize key special collections; ‘it’s going to be an adventure’


A treasure trove of history, UND’s Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections is about to become even more useful and accessible, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Webpage screenshot.

A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities will help UND digitize important archive material, including the papers of Sen. William “Wild Bill” Langer and one of the world’s few remaining sets of Nuremberg Trial transcripts, the University announced.

The $265,875 grant — a CARES Act grant, part of the NEH’s emergency relief funding to cultural institutions affected by coronavirus — also will be used to digitize government documents related to the five federally recognized Indigenous tribes in North Dakota, make a catalogue of a renowned Norwegian genealogy resource available on the Web, and create curricular resources so that K-12 students in North Dakota can learn more about the above.

More than 2,300 cultural organizations applied for the grants, and only 317 projects or 14 percent were funded, according to the NEH. UND’s application was the only one in North Dakota to be selected.

Crystal Alberts

“This is a massive collaborative project that is going to be an adventure,” said Crystal Alberts, associate professor of English at UND and one of the project’s lead organizers.

“UND will benefit, North Dakota will benefit, and the people around the world who use our newly digitized resources will benefit, too.”

In March, the NEH received funding for the grants through the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security or CARES Act. One of the grant program’s key goals is to ease financial distress at cultural institutions around the country, especially by helping the institutions bring back furloughed staff.

At UND, the project will let the University rehire four humanities instructors, reinstate two furloughed library staff, and supplement the income of two additional contingent faculty members.

‘Boxes of surprises’

On July 18, 1934, this story appeared on the front page of The New York Times. It testifies to the astonishing career of William Langer, whose papers now are at UND and are being digitized with the help of a federal grant. Screenshot of NY Times reprint.

And by the time the project is completed, key letters, transcripts and other materials in UND’s Special Collections will be available on the Web, many for the first time ever, Alberts said.

Consider the Langer collection. The Chester Fritz Library is the home of the William Langer Papers, some 900 mostly unexplored boxes of U.S. history from the first half of the 20th century.

William Langer

“And what a story they tell!” Alberts exclaimed.

Langer, UND Class of 1906, is one of the most colorful characters in North Dakota history. Elected governor in 1932, then convicted on charges of political corruption in 1934, he was ordered by North Dakota Supreme Court to leave office.

The July 18, 1934 edition of The New York Times recounts what happened next: “BISMARCK, N.D., July 17. – This city was placed under martial law tonight by order of William Langer a few hours after the State Supreme Court had ordered him ousted him as governor.” A few weeks earlier, as efforts to oust Langer had intensified, a story in The Times had included the line, “Langer retained physical possession of his office by posting a guard of deputy sheriffs.”

Later exonerated, Langer again was elected governor, then in 1940 won a seat in the U.S. Senate — only to be ruled unfit-to-serve by a Senate committee. The full Senate seated Langer, and he served until his death in 1959.

All that and more — such as Langer’s vote, along with that of only one other senator, against the United Nations Charter in 1945 — will be detailed in the Langer papers, Alberts expects.

“It’s going to be 900 boxes of surprises that the team is going to get to figure out.”

The NEH grant will help UND more fully digitize and make available key portions of a remarkable resource: the Nuremberg Trial Transcripts. Webpage screenshot.

UND’s humanities mission

By focusing on its Special Collections, UND can fulfill the grant program’s goal of retaining staff while preserving and promoting the humanities, said Stephanie Walker, UND’s dean of libraries & information resources.

In choosing which of its Special Collections to digitize, UND asked several questions, such as: Can UND publish the material without sparking copyright problems? Has the donor given permission for the papers to be released? And, is the collection of broad and significant interest?

• Several collections qualified, the Langer papers being one. The Nuremberg Trial Transcripts were chosen as well. UND is one of the original 22 universities across the country that has papers from Nuremberg, and it’s one of the most complete collections. The documents came to Grand Forks in 1949 thanks to Howard Russell, a UND English professor before serving in World War II.

Russell served as Secretary General of the American Military Tribunals from May 1948 until the trials’ end.

Today, the collection includes more than 450 boxes of materials, key portions of which — notably, materials related to the Nazi invasion and occupation of Norway — have been digitized and transcribed. These documents were selected because they were not available elsewhere and because of the regional interest in Norway.

Using the grant, UND will be able to migrate those previously digitized transcripts in full form (not just PDFs) onto the University’s new Scholarly Commons repository. In addition, an interactive map and portion of the “Einsatzgruppen Case” will be added to the digital collection.

Arne Brekke

For nearly 35 years, Arne Brekke led the effort to collect copies of bygdebøker, Norwegian compilations of local genealogical, cultural and geographical information. The collection surpassed 1,600 volumes at UND’s Department of Special Collections. UND archival image.

• The Arne G. Brekke Bygdebok Collection is another that the grant will help UND restore and expand. Bygdebøker are Norwegian publications that provide information about local history in largely rural areas of Norway. UND’s collection is the second largest in the world (exceeded only by the National Library of Norway’s), and interest among genealogists is high.

But because of a recent University-wide website redesign, the website for the Bygedebok collection is currently unavailable. UND will use the NEH grant to restore compatibility and reopen the collection to the world.

• As a federal depository, UND has many government documents that relate to the five federally recognized tribes in the state — the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Spirit Lake Nation, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation and Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate. Digitizing these documents and making them available will create a tremendously valuable educational resource, Walker said.

Kim Donehower

• The project’s final goal is to enrich the curricular resources available to teachers of North Dakota history, culture and connections to major world events. North Dakota studies and Indigenous cultures and histories both are required parts of the public-school curriculum, and teachers always are looking for useful materials, said Kim Donehower, who works with teacher education as UND’s English Education program coordinator and academic director of composition.

“So, the papers that — for example — show the correspondence between the tribes and Langer, or the congressional debates about the Garrison Dam, are really interesting documents that I think teachers would like to be able to access for their students.”

Global access

Called “Strengthening North Dakota’s Humanities Infrastructure,” UND’s CARES Act humanities project is a collaboration between the UND College of Arts & Sciences and the Chester Fritz Library. It’s funded through December.

Stephanie Walker

UND’s Special Collections already has some outlines or other basic elements online, Walker noted. “But with this project, it’ll be more like putting the entire book online, rather than just the table of contents. Plus, you’ll be able to do the research without having to book a flight to Grand Forks, N.D., from wherever you are.”

Alberts agreed. “There’s no substitute for having the original paper in your hand, but the amount of access that this will provide is fantastic to people around the globe,” she said.

“We’re making our resources more available to people across the state. And we’re bringing a little bit of North Dakota to the world.”