Library/Archive Sprints at the Montana Historical Society

Natasha Hollenbach is the Digital Projects Librarian at the Montana Historical Society (MHS). She signed up for History Unfolded in spring 2016, and has been a strong advocate for ensuring that our database includes information from “Big Sky Country.”

Recently, Natasha organized a research sprint at MHS focusing on the weeks following Kristallnacht in 1938. We are so impressed with the work of staff at the Montana Historical Society that we invited Natasha to describe her project experience in her own words. Here she is:

O Beautiful For Spacious Skies

My primary responsibilities at the Montana Historical Society include getting historic newspapers digitized and publicly accessible online, so when I heard about the History Unfolded project I knew I wanted to be involved. MHS has a vast collection of Montana newspapers on microfilm, which I determined was going to be the primary resource for this project. Those of you using microfilm know that it’s a slow process, so recruiting help was essential if I really wanted to make an impact. I’m not a teacher, so I don’t have students to pull into the project, and since I’m mostly using microfilm, I can’t host an open event, because we only have five microfilm readers. Instead I host events for our staff. We just had our third History Unfolded staff research party on Monday, bringing MHS contributions to 116 articles, which as of the time of writing is 64% of the articles from Montana!

Microfilm Room at MHS

Montana Historical Society microfilm room. Courtesy of Natasha Hollenbach.

(Full disclosure: A large number of articles have been submitted by me outside of the official event times. Initially it was me learning how the project worked before I hosted an event, but after that it’s just that adding articles is addictive.)

Including Montana in the Conversation

There are many reasons why I wanted my institution to participate in History Unfolded. One, I’m the historic newspaper person, so I’m always looking for ways to make that collection more visible. Two, on a personal level, I’m really interested in the World War II time period. Mostly though, it comes down to ensuring that Montana is represented in these types of national projects.

We all hope and expect that History Unfolded will be used by researchers, so if your community isn’t actively participating in History Unfolded, you’re going to be left out of the conversation. One of the primary purposes of MHS is to promote Montana history, but the history of Montana didn’t happen in isolation. It’s important to put it in context with the rest of the country. History Unfolded offers an amazing opportunity to look at the coverage of these events not only in Montana, but how our coverage compared to those across the country. The possibilities are fascinating.


Natasha Hollenbach, Digital Projects Librarian, Montana Historical Society. Photo by Tom Ferris, MHS Archival Photographer.

Scope, Scope, Scope

The hardest part about planning an event is that I always underestimate how much time it takes to go through the full date range. On the one hand, I want to give my participants options, but on the other the scope needs to be limited so the results are focused. One or two hours doesn’t get you through much when you’re looking at a daily paper, and the more articles you find, the less time you cover.

During the event on Monday, I came across a different scoping question. I had chosen Father Coughlin and President Truman’s Displaced Persons Quota as our focus. However, as I looked through The Montana Standard (Butte, Montana) finding nothing about Father Coughlin, I found a number of articles about Kristallnacht, which I submitted. So the question for my future planning is whether it’s better to look for all the possible events within the date range at the same time or to focus on only one event at once?

Montana Standard 1938 11.20 Victims of Nazis Find Sanctuary

One of many pages found by staff at MHS. “NAZIS EXTEND JEWISH DRIVE.” “Victims of Nazis Find Sanctuary.” Montana Standard. 1938.11.20

[See the total published findings to date from The Montana Standard, The Great Falls Tribune, The Billings Gazette, The Daily Missoulian and The River Press.]

Getting Staff to Volunteer Their Time

In my experience, most people do not willingly spend time on microfilm, so how did I get my co-workers to volunteer? It helps enormously that I’m at a historical society, because being a history geek is part of the job. Mostly though I combine the argument above about how History Unfolded aligns with our organizational mission with the fun of doing something different for a couple of hours on a Monday. I like to think that having a justification to do something that’s not work at work is irresistible.

I try to keep it low key and easy. Most people only come for an hour or two. Keeping their time commitment limited is essential not only to get them to participate, but getting supervisor approval. Just as important, every event is separate. While there are a couple of us who have been at all three events, there are always a few whose schedule didn’t allow them to participate before.

Making sure everyone knows they’re always welcome regardless of experience both on the project and with the microfilm readers ensures a continuing number of new converts to the project and extends word of mouth about how much fun it is. Based on what I heard from my colleagues reflecting on Monday’s event, it appears that they have learned a lot from working on History Unfolded. I will close with a quote from one of my coworkers on what his involvement has meant for him.

“I am a firm believer in the potential of crowdsourcing when it comes to the enrichment of library and archives collections, and I found the History Unfolded Project to be extremely well-defined in terms of purpose and structure. The specifics of the topic that I researched – “President Truman Orders Quota Preference for Displaced Persons” – were unknown to me, so I was very engaged by both the personal learning experience and the act of sharing regional information with the rest of the world. While the information I found was ultimately from the AP, it was extremely interesting to think about the ways in which my regional source presented this news to its reading public. Page position, font size, and article length aren’t always at the front of my mind when performing research, so it was rewarding for me to focus on this aspect of historical sources.” – Kelly Burton, Film Archivist, MHS

[We hope your organization will join the History Unfolded project and benefit in similar ways as the Montana Historical Society. If you want to organize your own internal or general-public research sprints, the guide for how to get started is here. Also, the History Unfolded community manager is available to answer your questions and help in any way possible. Send an email to historyunfolded at ushmm dot org.]