Digital History Practicum: North Dakota History Goes Digital

This semester I am supervising a small digital history practicum.  The goals (as I have explained elsewhere in the blog) is to begin the process of digitizing Master’s Theses stored in Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections at the University of North Dakota.  These theses document the early history of the study of history at UND and provide some valuable historiography for the study of the history of the state. In fact, some of these theses date to before the establishment of state or local archives or to times when these archives existed only at the most rudimentary levels. As a result, they could contain references to documents that are now lost.

For example, we have Myrtle Bemis’s 1909 M.A. Thesis on the Settlement of Swedes in North Dakota. Much of the evidence for her argument comes from conversations and interviews with Swedes who had settled there just 20 or 30 years earlier.  This appears to be the earliest thesis in our collection here and it was prepared under the guidance of A. G. Leonard (Geology), Orin G. Libby (History), and John Gillette (Sociology).

Bemis1909 Page 001

Bemis1909 Page 002Bemis1909 Page 003







Among the more interesting theses, however, does not touch on the history of North Dakota at all. Elmer Ellis‘s M.A. thesis, followed in the footsteps of Orin G. Libby’s work on the quantitative, geographical study of American political allegiances, but emphasized minority parties from the Civil War to 1900.  As readers of this blog know, Ellis went on to earn his Ph.D. and become the 14th president of the University of Missouri.

Elmer Ellis 1925 Page 001Elmer Ellis 1925 Page 002









We hope to begin to release these theses by early March with short interpretative introductions, some discussion of our methods, and a proposal for digitizing the entire series of M.A. Theses in the archive.

At present we are a bit stuck as to how present these theses to the public. Our initial instinct had been to use Omeka, an online collection management application, and, specifically, their hosted service.  For public history students, learning to use these kinds of tools is an important skill, as many small to mid-sized museums and institutions have begun to develop their web presence in a more serious way.  Omeka allows the students to familiarize themselves with the Dublin Core metadata for objects as well.

Unfortunately, we have not been very successful in getting Omeka (or to display textual artifacts. While the self-hosted version of Omeka (version 1.1) does allow for a document viewer installation (using Google Docs viewer), it is pretty limited in where it can be deployed. For example, it does not appear to work when arranging various items in the database for a formal exhibition., while a great tool for image collections, does not support the viewer at all. So we can develop the metadata for these objects and even display images of their front page (like in this blog), but we can’t actually display the text in a way that is easy for the visitor to the site to scroll through without downloading the entire thesis.  This may be an acceptable solution for the present, but it is hardly optimal.

Since the scanned theses will eventually (we hope) make their way into the libraries digital collection in ContentDM, we are a bit reluctant to develop too much of a front end for their display. At the same time, the practicum had as its goal more than just creating a digital collection. We wanted to make sure that our collection could present our collection to interested members of the local community.

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