Bismarck Tribune archives maintained by state during 150 years of publishing

Posted 7/11/23 (Tue)

AMY DALRYMPLE Bismarck Tribune

The Bismarck Tribune marks 150 years today.

Copies of the state’s oldest newspaper occupy more than 350 feet of space in the State Archives at the Historical Society of North Dakota. The editions are neatly stored in labeled boxes, stacked on shelves from the floor nearly to the ceiling.

“There’s so much history here, it’s just fascinating,” State Archivist Shane Molander said last week as we stood in one of the aisles with Tribune copies.

The first edition of the Tribune -- July 11, 1873 -- is available at the State Archives on microfilm, and hard copies are on file starting with the 1880s.

Microfilm is still the favored method to preserve newspapers despite the technological advances that have occurred over the lifetime of the Tribune.

“Supposedly if you do it right, microfilm has a 500-year lifespan. That’s why it’s the preferred method of preservation,” Molander said, though he added: “Now microfilming hasn’t been around for 500 years, so how do you prove that?”

Each roll of microfilm takes microfilm specialist Tam Leben about eight hours to produce. A roll contains one to two months of a daily newspaper, depending on the size of the paper, and one year of a weekly. 

The Legislature last session approved funding that will allow the State Archives to buy equipment to streamline that process. The North Dakota Newspaper Association is partnering with the effort, with a goal of making more newspaper archives available online to the public.

State law

A North Dakota law enacted in 1905 requires newspaper publishers in the state to send a copy of each edition to the State Archives for preservation. That’s enabled North Dakota to have an impressive collection of newspaper archives.

“Most states don’t have anything like that so they struggle,” Molander said.

Recently as newspapers have reduced print editions, archivists have had to adapt to also preserve the digital e-editions. The Tribune continues to print a newspaper six days a week, but produces only a digital e-edition on Sundays and major holidays.

The State Archives downloads the e-editions and maintains the digital files. But to make sure those editions are available in the future -- no matter what changes in technology occur -- archivists plan to preserve those digital files on microfilm.

“The future is not completely certain,” Molander said. “Microfilm is still the best way to assure we have those newspapers well into the future. All you really need with that film is light and you can read it.”

The Legislature approved $236,400 for the State Archives to buy equipment, including an archive writer, that will allow staff to create microfilm from the digital e-editions. The North Dakota Newspaper Association Education Foundation approved a grant of about $11,800 to help pay for the equipment.

I organized a tour of the State Archives for the NDNA Board in 2021, and we were surprised to learn that staff use a clothing iron to flatten each print newspaper issue before taking a picture of each page. The new equipment and the partnership with NDNA will enable the State Archives to skip the ironing and some other steps.

“It’s going to be fast,” Leben said.

That will free up staff time for other projects, such as refilming old newspapers that were preserved before microfilm standards were adopted in the 1980s, Molander said.

Tribune archives

The public can access digital archives of The Bismarck Tribune two ways. The site Chronicling America has Bismarck Tribune archives (previously known under other titles, including Bismarck Weekly Tribune and Bismarck Daily Tribune) from 1873 to 1937 available online for free.

That’s the result of a grant program the State Historical Society participated in with the National Endowment for the Humanities and Library of Congress, according to Molander. Bismarck Tribune archives were digitized through 1937 to include the Tribune’s Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Dust Bowl, he said. also has digital archives of the Tribune available to the public for a fee. Bismarck Tribune subscribers can access two years of archives for free.

A piece of microfilm at the North Dakota State Archives shows the front page of The Bismarck Tribune from Wednesday, Aug. 27, 1873. North Dakota archivists still rely heavily on microfilm as the preferred method of archiving its newspaper collection.