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Exploring Minnesota’s Natural History

By April 7, 2014November 8th, 2023No Comments


In her role with the Exploring Minnesota’s Natural History project, Rebecca Wilson sees thousands of images. Every so often, one really stands out.

“There will be a series of 100 photographs of blackbirds,” said Wilson, describing the somewhat routine part of her job as project manager. “But, then, photograph 101 will be a hand holding two meadowlarks.”

“There are just fantastic images,” said Erik Moore, head of the University of Minnesota Archives, who is leading the project. “We have digitized over 6,000 glass plate and film negatives, 3, 000 lantern slides, and 2,000 print photographs that depict botanical specimens, landscapes of Minnesota, and animals in their native habitats.”

Some materials haven’t been seen for 100 years

The yearlong project will digitize and provide online access to unique botanical, zoological, and geological material from archival collections that document the natural history of the state of Minnesota. The materials relate to the establishment of the Minnesota Geological and Natural History Survey in 1872 by the state legislature under the auspices of the University’s Board of Regents.

In addition to digitizing the survey records and field notebooks, the records of the University’s Bell Museum of Natural History and the departments of botany, geology, and zoology – all entities which credit their initiation to the original Survey – will be included in the project. Funding is provided by the State of Minnesota from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the Minnesota Historical Society.

“The materials include everything from field notebooks kept by the officers of the survey to observational journals that amateur naturalists used to record bird sightings. The materials haven’t been seen by anybody for 50 to 100 years;” Moore said.

The materials that will be digitized for this project include:

  • 6,500 glass plate and film negatives
  • 2,200 photographic prints
  • 3,200 lantern slides
  • Over 170,000 pages of archival material, including journals, correspondence, scrapbooks, departmental records, publications, and reports

The University Libraries’ Digital Library Services unit – which has considerable experience with large-volume projects featuring photographs, archival manuscripts, and other mixed-material – is conducting the digitization. Through January 2014, the unit completed 138,371 scans in slightly more than 2,000 hours.

Handwritten notes provide context

Wilson said that the material includes corresponding information – handwritten notes and captions.

“Once those materials have been scanned, it’s my job to decipher the hastily written hand notations and make sure all of these new digital records have contextual information,” Wilson said. For example, glass plate negatives in the Bell Museum records are encased in envelopes that have handwritten notes on them. The notes typically include the date and location of a specific photo, but may also include the aperture of the camera or the length of exposure.

“So a media researcher could take this information and write a history of field photography,” Moore said. But the project will also provide researchers of Minnesota’s environment the ability to establish benchmarks and comparable points of data in order to study the changes to the larger ecosystem, he added.

“The historic nature and rich content of these collections will serve as an important foundational resource not only to researchers at the University of Minnesota but to those everywhere who are studying changes in the environment.”

Project continues spirit of 1872 Act

Through digitization, the University is preserving these delicate natural history collections and providing online access.

“These materials will be available any place a seasoned academic researcher or History Day student needs the material – such as a research laboratory on the St. Paul campus, a middle school on the Iron Range, or in the hands of a birder in Itasca State Park,” Moore said.

“The 1872 Act instructed that the surveyed materials and specimens be made freely available to the people of the State of Minnesota,” Moore noted and added that it’s also the mission of University Archives to preserve and make accessible these archives. “We feel that this digitization project is really a continuation of the spirit of that original 1872 Act.”

For more information about this project, please visit

Mark Engebretson

Author Mark Engebretson

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