Building UND’s digital storehouse of North Dakota history

By uploading documents such as the ‘Wild Bill’ Langer Papers to UND’s Scholarly Commons, Digital Humanities students make history available to the world

This 1936 cartoon by W.H. Shields is one of many thousands of items in the Langer Papers, a resource maintained by the Chester Fritz Library at UND. As part of their training in Digital Humanities, UND students digitize the documents in the Langer Papers and other collections, and add the digitized documents to the UND Scholarly Commons. Web screenshot.

From some of the oldest and most historic materials at the University, UND students are helping to grow one of the newest academic disciplines around. And in the process, they’re building an online repository of those materials that can be accessed by North Dakotans and others from anywhere on the globe.

The field is Digital Humanities. It’s a discipline that focuses on the power of computing and the Internet to enhance humanities study, using tools ranging from text analysis and data mining to online publishing and 3D modeling of historical artifacts.

At UND, students in English 428: Digital Humanities study the discipline in depth. Then they zero in on a project that’s both integral to the discipline and useful to the state: digital archiving, in particular the hundreds of boxes of speeches, letters and other historical papers housed in the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections at the Chester Fritz Library.

“We’re working now on the Thomas McGrath papers,” said Casey Fuller, a UND graduate student in English, looking up from a file folder of documents in the library.

McGrath – a UND alum and Rhodes Scholar – was a North Dakotan and one of the state’s most famous poets, Fuller continued. “So we’re lucky to have the majority of his papers here at UND.”

That collection consists of about 30 boxes, one of which was opened at the table where Fuller and two classmates were at work. On the final day of Spring Semester classes in May, the three students were studying the letters, memos and other documents in the file, handling each piece of paper with care. Many of the documents – some of them yellowing around the edges – had been typed on the thin, crinkly paper called onionskin that was common in the days before office printers.

At the Chester Fritz Library’s Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, Casey Fuller (l) and Meghan Bird face the camera while Macy Marquette, a UND junior, works at her laptop in the background. The English 428: Digital Humanities students are helping to digitize the collection’s papers of Thomas McGrath, a well-known poet from North Dakota. Photo by Tom Dennis/UND Today.

Organizing, analyzing and scanning

“We’re organizing, analyzing and scanning,” said Meghan Bird, a senior and English major and a classmate of Fuller’s. “And the great thing is, we’re adding these documents to the Scholarly Commons, UND’s digital repository. That means they’ll be available to researchers around the world, and they’ll also serve as a foundation for future Digital Humanities students to build on the collection.”

Archiving the actual letters and memos of a historical figure has other benefits, the students continued.

First, it builds an appreciation for the practice of digital archiving itself. Every document in every digital collection, including enormous resources such as the 37 million documents in the Digital Public Library of America, was scanned or otherwise deliberately made available by someone, Bird noted.

“When I was in high school, I never would have thought of that, but I’m actually very interested in it now,” she said. “Working with this collection has really opened my eyes to the huge potential of this field.”

Second, Digital Humanities work often is a history or literature lesson, too. For example, this year’s English 428 class also is helping to digitize the Langer Papers. That’s the huge (900 boxes!) collection of documents related to the life of William “Wild Bill” Langer – governor, senator and one of the most colorful characters in North Dakota history.

UND graduate Langer served as governor during the Great Depression and as senator from 1941 to 1959. That put him at the center of events during one of the most important periods of American and North Dakota history, Fuller said.

This image shows one of the many thousands of documents in the William “Wild Bill” Langer Papers, which are among the holdings of the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections at UND. In this March 1946 letter, then-Sen. William Langer explains why he believes Richard Auras – an internee at the Fort Lincoln Internment Camp south of Bismarck – must be repatriated to Germany.  Click on the image to find more letters on Auras’ case, including his response to Sen. Langer.

“So in the course of working with his papers, we’ve talked about the Depression, Prohibition, World War II, the Cold War, Garrison Dam and so much more,” Fuller said.

“And working with the actual documents makes all of that very real.”

Kyle Moore agreed. A graduate student in English, Moore learned that one of the folders in the Langer Papers collection centers on Fort Lincoln. Now the site of the United Tribes Technical College, the former military post south of Bismarck served as an internment camp for U.S. civilians of Japanese and German descent during World War II.

“And being a Japanese American myself, I was interested,” Moore said.

One set of papers centered on a German immigrant and Fort Lincoln internee who had petitioned then-Sen. Langer to be released. There in the folder were supportive letters from the immigrant’s fiancee, brother-in-law, college dean and others, all saying he was a good, honest citizen who should be freed.

There in the folder as well was Langer’s response: a letter in which Langer rejects the plea, citing the man’s affiliation with a German heritage group that the senator found suspicious.

“When you see the actual letters that people wrote and think about the importance in the man’s life of this decision, it’s very powerful,” Moore said.

And digitizing the papers means the episode, after lingering in a file folder for more than 70 years, now can be brought to light.

Service and joy

The first digital humanist was probably Father Roberto Busa, said Crystal Alberts, associate professor of English at UND and English 428 instructor. Busa was a Jesuit scholar who, in 1949, started – thanks to the sponsorship of Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM – a 30-year-long effort to digitize the massive works of St. Thomas Aquinas.

“So digital humanities has been around as long as computers have been around,” Alberts said. “Today, you can get a standalone Ph.D. in the field, but it’s also a big part of every humanities discipline.”

While Alberts was writing her dissertation on novelist William Gaddis (among others) in the early 2000s, she also was unpacking and processing Gaddis’ papers, which had been bought by Washington University in St. Louis. “So this is work that brings me a lot of joy,” she said.

“And I’m very happy to see my students dig in and experience that same feeling, as well as the sense of, ‘There’s so much work to do, and I don’t know where to start!’”

The fact that the students take pride in building the UND Scholarly Commons is also rewarding, because expanding that resource is one of the course’s main goals, Alberts said.

“This class originated in 2007, and from the beginning, we’ve partnered with the library,” she said.

“We want our students to work with collections in a way that’s service-oriented – that not only looks good on their resumes, but also is building a digital resource that will help the library, UND, North Dakota and literally the world.”

That’s no exaggeration, said Curt Hanson, Special Collections department head at the Chester Fritz Library. Because as soon as documents from the Collection get put on the Web, they start to get looked at. “We see the Scholarly Commons being used by people everywhere, and I love that it can be accessed by people wherever they may be,” he said.

Also of note is the item on the “About” page, which one can find linked to some of the pages in the Commons: “Built by students of English 428.”

Readers are invited to visit the websites for the the Langer Collection and the the Fort Lincoln mini-collection, both of which are part of the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections at the Chester Fritz Library at UND.