Images from a series of souvenir postcards, Theodore Roosevelt National Park collection.
When I learned that I would be working with Dickinson State University and the National Park Service to digitize the archival collection at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, I had mixed thoughts. I knew the project would be very intensive in both time and detail, but what piqued my curiosity was finding out what exactly was in the archives. What hidden treasures are stored, that very few people get to see or learn about? Time dedicated to this endeavor has not been entirely considered work for me, but more of a journey spanning over 150 years, interweaving periods of regional and national history with park history. It has been a journey discovering new pieces to the ever growing puzzle of American history, incorporating many new people, places, and ideas.
After working on the project for just 5 months, it seems I have just scratched the surface of what the park collection has to offer. As an interpretive park ranger at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, I have spent a great deal of time reading and absorbing all there is to know about western North Dakota and Theodore Roosevelt. What digitizing this collection has taught me is that I have only a basic grasp of all that occurred, not just in the region, but also in the national park where I have worked for multiple seasons. Page by page, letter by letter, new twists and turns appear in every story that I thought I knew well. While not all history can be gripping or captivating, one thing is for certain, this experience truly has been enlightening.
A major motivation for me to take on the daunting task of creating a digital image and database record for each item in the collection is the prospect of providing access to a rich history about which people may not be aware. The digitization of these materials can make a significant impact on the study of Theodore Roosevelt and the North Dakota badlands. For the most powerful resource in the study or research of a historical topic is primary works or documents that were written, molded, and held by the individual or group being studied. No matter how good a historian or a story teller is at presenting a topic, there is no substitute for the subject’s own words, written in their own hand. Plus the feeling of awe and wonder when a person can hold an item made by a president, a heroic soldier, or even the unknown person who helped shape those who make history is extraordinary and can often be the driving force behind people studying history.
In addition to creating a research tool that will have limitless potential for park staff, the digitization project will serve another vital role—preserving history. One of the most difficult demands placed upon curators and museum technicians is the task of preserving documents, maps, and other non-paper items for the enjoyment of future generations. Sometimes no matter how good museum personnel are at preserving these invaluable pieces of our past, not all can be saved and this is where the digitization project is most important. By creating a digital image of the pieces in special storage, the lives of these items can be prolonged. Historical pieces won’t have to be exposed to dangerous light, varying environments, and damage encountered from being handled.
This is the first post in a two part series on the TR Center blog highlighting the work being done at Theodore Roosevelt National Park for the Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library. Look for the second part early next week.
Joseph Camisa is a park ranger at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, North Dakota. He is currently scanning documents and collecting metadata for the Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library project at Mount Rushmore National Historic Site outside of Keystone, South Dakota.