Phantom Memos: Federal Decisions about Coldwater Spring

What is in the final environmental impact statement for the Coldwater/ Bureau of Mines property near Fort Snelling in Hennepin County, Minnesota? How does it provide a basis for the Department of Interior to select Preferred Alternative D [3], including the cleanup the property by the federal government and its retention in federal hands? And how does it deal with the issues about Coldwater Spring as a place of traditional cultural importance for Dakota people?

To know the answers to those questions—and the meaning of those answers—requires context and information. One of the problems of dealing with any bureaucracy which operates in an environment of controversy has to do with the flow of information. To understand how such agencies make their decisions requires access to hidden information, buried reports, and phantom memos. Every decision has a hidden history that has to be understood before you can begin to figure out the decision. Should you choose to try to learn this context, may the force be with you.


The spring basin at Coldwater Spring, showing the underwater carp that used to live there, in a March 2009 photograph.

For ten years the Department of Interior, through the National Park Service and its Twin Cities entity, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA), has been trying to extricate itself from Coldwater Spring and the problems associated with the ownership of 27 acres of controversial land and abandoned buildings. For supporters of the preservation of Coldwater Spring, including those who believe that it is a sacred and culturally important place for Dakota and other Native people, the process has been difficult to follow, in part because they have not been given all the information needed to understand it. The Park Service and MNRRA have managed information carefully, sometimes concealing it or giving it out only after the fact, after decisions were made.

The initiation of an environmental review process and the beginning of work on a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in 2005, seemed to suggest a change in tone, the possibility of a real flow of information that would lead to a collaboration between supporters of preservation and a governmental agency seeking to do the best for an environmental, cultural, and historic resource. The release of the draft EIS (DEIS) in 2006 tempered enthusiasm a little bit. The DEIS provided a lot of information. But a great deal of the cultural and historic information was inaccurate and incomplete. And using the incomplete information the Park Service announced that it did not believe Dakota people and others who insisted on the importance of Coldwater Spring to Native people. In doing so, the Park Service rejected the finding of its own contracting experts who found that Coldwater Spring was a TCP, a traditional cultural property of importance to Dakota people.


A view of graffiti on Building 11, one of the abandoned Bureau of Mines buildings above Coldwater Spring, March 2009 photo.

During a 90-day comment period in the fall of 2006, many people submitted comments to correct the record compiled by the Park Service about the cultural nature of the property, on the theory that given the right information the agency would revise the EIS and the conclusions to which it came. Adequate knowledge about the historical and current importance of Coldwater Spring and the surrounding area is not just about correcting the historical record or assuring that competent history is done. It is also about assuring that the right decisions are made about Coldwater Spring.

Many supporters of Coldwater preservation are united in their belief about the environmental importance of the spring and beauty of the spring area. They can agree that the buildings should be removed, preferably at government expense, and the area restored environmentally. Under the DEIS issued in 2006, the best alternative to achieve that purpose was Alternative D. However Alternative D had several alternatives built into them. These alternatives were not numbered but to better understand them, they should probably have been. Under Alternative D, once the property was cleaned up by the federal government, the alternatives are:

[1]. The property would be transferred to a university or nonfederal entity—including Indian tribes—without conditions.

[2]. The property would be transferred to a university or nonfederal entity—including Indian tribes—with conditions.

[3]. The property would be retained by the federal government, including being held as trust land for Indian tribes.

It is important to know that supporters of Coldwater preservation did not all agree on who the ultimate owner of the property should be. Some wanted the property to be a public park. Others wanted Indian ownership. In 2006 several Dakota tribal entities asked for the federal government to transfer the property to them.

Was it a mere coincidence that, given the Dakota beliefs about the importance of the spring and the proposals from Dakota tribes to acquire the property, that the National Park Service rejected its own contractor’s documentation that the spring was a Traditional Cultural Property for Dakota people? The tenaciousness of the Park Service’s position on this point and the lack of explanation for it in the DEIS suggested instead that the Park Service simply did not want to give Dakota people any leverage in any negotiations about the ultimate fate of the Coldwater property. For the Park Service to acknowledge what Dakota people said about the spring and what its own experts said about the spring, and what many other people outside the federal government said about the spring would have given Dakota people, a moral and perhaps, legal claim to the spring that the Park Service simply did not want to recognize.

It was hard to figure out, from the DEIS, the Park Service’s own rationale for the decision it had reached about the TCP status of Coldwater. There was, of course, a phantom memo, that shed some light on the issue. Midway through the DEIS comment period a memo was written by an unnamed person in MNRRA, explaining some of it. The memo was issued to a few people at the time, though it was not a part of the DEIS, which meant that the rationale for the Park Service decision about the TCP status of Coldwater was not supported in the DEIS by any facts or reasoning. The memo is still preserved on the MNRRA website in pdf from, although it is hard to find.

Some of those who reviewed the DEIS did read the phantom memo and commented on it in their comments to the Park Service in November 2006. At that point, at the conclusion of the DEIS comment period, there was optimism that given more information, the Park Service would rethink its decision in revising the DEIS, something that has been expected to happen for the last three years.

Finally, after more than three years, on December 11, 2009, the Park Service released the Final Environmental Impact Statement on the Coldwater/ Bureau of Mines property. Although it had taken a long time, the Department of Interior seemed closer to a decision about what would happen to Coldwater Spring. A year earlier, in the waning days of the Bush administration, Lyle Laverty, Acting Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, had written several memos (one of them was another phantom memo, which has not yet been made public) stating that the department had identified the Preferred Alternative for the EIS process for Coldwater as Alternative D, which would include the cleaning up of the property and D[3] the subsequent ownership and management by MNRRA.

Subsequent to that finding there had been a further comment period and discussion of the process of restoration of the property, including an open house on February 23, 2009, at which Dakota people had described again the importance of the spring and the surrounding area to Dakota people. Subsequently, the Park Service drafted a Memorandum of Agreement to govern the restoration process for the spring area.

The announcement that Alternative D was the preferred alternative and that long-term ownership of the property would remain in the possession of the federal government was a signal of what to expect in the final EIS (FEIS). It would be expected that the FEIS would include the weighing of alternatives and evidence to show why the Preferred Alternative was preferred.

It was also expected that the Park Service would weigh in further on the question of the importance of the spring for Dakota people either changing its analysis to acknowledge new information or justifying further the Park Service insistence that that Coldwater Spring was not a TCP for the Dakota people.

Again the reason for expecting a more detailed analysis of the TCP question was not a simple matter of having a corrected historical record about Coldwater Spring, but was relevant to the question of the Preferred Alternative. If the Park Service was planning to reject proposals for the property by Dakota tribal groups and claims by the Dakota people about the importance of the property, one would expect some justification of that in the FEIS.

What is in the FEIS and how does it deal with the issues about Coldwater Spring as a Dakota place and how does it provide a basis for the Department of Interior to select Alternative D [3], including the cleanup the property by the federal government and its retention in federal hands?

More about that next time.

No Indian history at Coldwater Spring, says Park Service

The National Park Service has released its final Environmental Impact Statement for the Coldwater Spring/ Bureau of Mines Property, near Fort Snelling. The report is intended to support the Park Service’s decision to keep the property in federal ownership, bolstered in part by statements claiming that “no historical documentation of American Indian use of Camp Coldwater Spring has been found,” (repeated five times in the final EIS, beginning on page 72).

Even by an absurd definition of “historical documentation” that is so narrow that it would exclude oral history and tradition, this is an incorrect statement. Written documentation about the use of the spring and the area around it during the 1820s and 1830s was given to the Park Service three years ago, but is ignored in the final EIS. In response to a number of comments submitted to the government about the accuracy of government statements about Native use of Coldwater Spring, the final EIS merely states: “Comment noted.”

An engraving based on a painting by George Catlin of an Ojibwe camp at Coldwater Spring, in 1835. That year, as in previous years, 500 Ojibwe came to the site to trade, dance, and meet ceremonially with their hosts, the Dakota.

An engraving based on a painting by George Catlin of an Ojibwe camp at Coldwater Spring, in 1835. That year, as in previous years, 500 Ojibwe came to the site to trade, dance, and meet ceremonially with their hosts, the Dakota.

Further analysis and discussion of this final EIS will take place on in the days ahead.

The report is available online. Though released on Friday, December 11, 2009, the online version was inaccessible for two days after that. It is now available again, in pdf form at:

Minnesota Photo Detective: What’s the story?

There is nothing more poignant than a family photograph, sitting in a box in a second-hand store, with little or no clue on it about the identity or history of the people pictured. But sometimes there are clues, enough information to start on a journey to find out more. Every photograph is the starting point of a story as I said in my book We Are at Home: Pictures of the Ojibwe People. Every once in awhile it is worth trying to find the story.


The photograph appears to show a young woman in overalls and a hat standing in the middle of a field. Who is she? I found this photograph in a second-hand store recently. On the back are written the following words: “Out to Aunt Graces at Ponsford in July 1926. Myself.” I’m really intrigued by the mystery. There are so many questions. According to the 1920 and 1930 U.S. censuses there were several women named Grace old enough to be somebody’s aunt, living on the nearby White Earth Reservation and in parts of Becker County, Minnesota. Among them were Grace Willis, Grace Hull, Grace Shinway or Shumway, Grace Snetsinger, Grace Porter, and Grace Fairbanks.

If anyone has any ideas please add comments. I will add more information as I find it.

Remembering Lisa Elbert, Minnesota linguist and historian

Contributed by Carrie Zeman

Minnesota linguist and historian Elisabeth Karen (Lisa) Elbert died on August 4, 2009 at the age of 35. (Lisa’s obituary appeared in the Ames [IA] Tribune on August 7, 2009.) Elbert’s friends remember her as  remarkable: “… a multi faceted person…a Linguist; a weaver; a teacher; a civil war re-enactor; a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism; a published scholar; a dumpster diver and a champion in the preservation of the Dakota Language.  But, most importantly, she was a caring, giving person and a friend to many.”


In 1997, Elbert graduated from Carlton College, Northfield Minnesota. She went on to earn and earn two Master’s degrees at the University of Minnesota: in U.S. History (2005); and in Teaching English as a Second Language, with an emphasis on Dakota language (2006). At the time of her death, Elbert was a PhD student in Applied Linguistics and Technology at Iowa State University.

Lisa’s empathy for Dakota people was more than an intellectual commitment to help right past wrongs.  As she wrote in American Indian Quarterly, recalling her first encounter with cancer at the age of 28:

Wanna cante etanhan owawa kte. Damakota sni, tka Dakota oyate tewicawahinde. Kodawicawaye. Tohan taku yazanpi kinhan, nakun mayazan. Now I am going to write from the heart. I am not Dakota, but I cherish the Dakota people. They are my friends. If something hurts them, it hurts me.

How does a person-or a people-cope with tragedy and loss? Your world comes crashing down around you, and yet . . . you find that you are still alive. Tragedy and loss cannot be qualified or quantified. They just are. Icannot presume to understand the loss of a people driven from their homes, torn from their families and loved ones. I do not wish to compare pain in the competitive way of fishermen who argue over who caught the biggest fish. Pain, loss, suffering, grief are entirely specific to each individual, as are their coping methods. But I do believe that on a level we are all related-mitakuye owasin–and that those who have suffered have something in common with each other that they can turn to empathy and keep each other company on the road of healing.

Lisa walked the road she found herself on with passion, purpose, and a sense of humor, deprecating her professional resume as “… self-promotional junk I put together when I was trying to find a real job.” History may not be as humble appraising Elbert’s contributions. With Neil McKay and Beth Brown, Elbert was a primary author of Mnisota Dakota Iapi Owayawa the Dakota Language Program website for the Department of American Indian Studies at the University  of Minnesota. With McKay, she edited the third edition of the text Dakota Iape (2002). Elbert wrote its verb companion text, Wicoie Yutocapi Wowapi (2003).

In 2004, American Indian Quarterly published Lisa’s reflection on her participation the 2002 Dakota Commemorative March, “Mending Bodies, Mending Hearts,” quoted above. Intrigued by oral stories related by Dakota women and children who in November 1862 were subject to forced removal from the Minnesota frontier to internment at Fort Snelling before being deported from the state in 1863, Elbert was the first historian to collect documentary evidence of their route to Fort Snelling. Her 2005 Master’s thesis on that subject, was republished as, “Tracing Their Footsteps: The Dakota March of 1862” in Wilson, Waziyatawin, Angela, ed., In the Footsteps of Our Ancestors: The Dakota Commemorative Marches of the 21st Century. St. Paul: Living Justice Press, 2006.

Lisa lived the revitalization of the Dakota language: volunteering as a weekly Dakota Language teacher in the Mendota Mdewankanton Community; participating in the Dakota Commemorative Marches; helping plan Minnesota Indigenous Language and Dakota Language Preservation Conferences; presenting at international Stabilizing Indigenous Languages Symposia in 2005 and 2006; and receiving honorable mention for her presentation “Marking Time in the Dakota Language” presented at CIC American Indian Studies Graduate Student Symposium.

Saturday October 3, 2009 at 3:00 PM Lisa’s friends and family will gather at the Gideon Pond House to celebrate her life. The event is open to the public. For more information, contact Diane at 651-983-6363. The Pond House is located at 401 E. 104th St., Bloomington, MN 55420 between Nicolett and Portland Avenues.

There are Mounds at Mound

It is no surprise that there are burial mounds in the Hennepin County community called Mound–which was actually named for that feature–as there are in many places around Lake Minnetonka. The lake was an ancient occupation site for the Dakota and other groups, though European-Americans did not know of the place until the 1820s or 1830s, 150 years after their arrival in the Minnesota region. Why then is it a surprise to landowners today that there are mounds at Mound?

There’s a report in the August 11, 2009 Finance and Commerce that tells of the latest “discovery” of mounds at Mound, and the financial and legal implications of that fact. The article states that some landowners were not informed of the fact that there might be burial mounds on their property when they bought the property. It says that the landowners thought the mounds “were just hills.” But anyone who knows a little about that area would know that burial mounds were a possibility.

Here’s what Warren Upham says in in his classic book Minnesota Geographic Names (first published in 1920; this quote is from page 231 of the 2002 edition):

Mound, a city on or near the northwestern shore of Lake Minnetonka. . . . The city is named for its aboriginal mounds. Three groups of mounds within the area of the village, mapped by Newton H. Winchell, have respectively 4, 18, and 9 mounds; and at the distance of about a mile westward is a remarkable series of 69 mounds, on the north side of Halsted’s Bay.

Indian Mound Painter: Edwin Whitefield (1816-1892)  Art Collection, Watercolor ca. 1857  Location no. AV1995.141.42  Negative no. 19251

Indian Mound in Hennepin County. Painter: Edwin Whitefield (1816-1892) Minnesota Historical Society Art Collection, Watercolor ca. 1857 Location no. AV1995.141.42 Negative no. 19251

Upham goes on to say that there were 495 mounds mapped around the shores of Lake Minnetonka, some recorded in Winchell’s book Aborigines of Minnesota, which was published long before there was an Minnesota State Archaeologist–the office that now has the enormous task of keeping records on the location of burial sites.

Many of these mounds were destroyed or lowered so that they are not perceived in the landscape. Making people aware of their existence and respecting their continuing presence requires a much greater effort at education than has ever been attempted.

Update on Coldwater funding

Contrary to what was reported a few days ago, the Park Service did not lose funding from the federal Stimulus Package passed by Congress earlier this year. Getting that money was only a possibility to begin with. It was never a sure thing. When the Stimulus Package passed Congress, the Park Service was one of many agencies that stood in line to get funding. It just happened that there were more projects seeking funding than there was money. So the Park Service could not get funding for the rehabilitation of the Bureau of Mines property from stimulus money. But this does not mean that it will take five years to get funding for the work.

Word also is that the Final EIS on the Coldwater/ Bureau of Mines property will be released late in the Summer. Officials were rushing to get it done in order to get the Stimulus funding. Now that this is no longer possible there is less of a hurry to finish.

More information later as it becomes available.

Funding eliminated for Coldwater building removal?

Here’s a report just up on the Friends of Coldwater website:

Funds for Building Removal and Land Reclamation Eliminated

by Susu Jeffrey
Friends of Coldwater

June 23, 2009

Coldwater supporters are angry that funds to return the area to “open green space” were dropped from the federal stimulus package. The Twin Cities office of the National Park Service (NPS) budgeted $3.5-million to remove buildings and to prepare the 27-acre property for replanting as an oak savanna.

It would be at least five more years before a financial package could be processed through Congress according to Steven Johnson, Project Manager for the Coldwater restoration program initiated by former Congressman Martin Sabo in 2003. Without action now, the historic Coldwater Spring House and limestone reservoir, built in the 1880s, could decay beyond repair.

More on this can be found at the Friends of Coldwater website.

Further commentary to follow here when more is known.

Digital Fog: The Future of the Minnesota Historical Society, Part 1

Every era has its buzzwords, words that promise a great deal but do not always deliver. Today that word is digitization, a word that has been applied both concretely and metaphorically, suggesting greater economy, efficiency, and endless promise. If the movie The Graduate were made today, the word whispered in the ear of the young college graduate would not be plastics, it would be digitization. Just as embracing plastics has left us today with a continuing problem of dealing with the environmental consequences of plastics, embracing digitization unthinkingly may leave us in the future with some dangerous consequences: a lost or inaccessible cultural heritage. And in the case of the Minnesota Historical Society, digitization may lead the institution to abandon its own important traditions and violate the mission it has been given by the State Legislature of Minnesota.

Despite all the promises made for digitization, the reality of what it can deliver does not always live up to the hype. This is especially true in the world of libraries, historical societies, and other cultural institutions. It is true that digitization offers a great deal in improving access to information. Creating digitized versions of printed books, handwritten manuscripts, and photographs made with film that can be viewed online is a boon to research. Having the documents accessible in this way often protects the originals from excessive handling, which extends their longevity.

But digitization of non-digital records is not preservation. Recently in a presentation on conservation of of collections, at the annual meeting of the Minnesota Digital Library on June 8, 2009, Robert Horton, Director of the Minnesota Historical Society’s Division of Library, Publications, and Collections, pointed out that if the problems of preserving two-dimensional records and books were difficult, the problems of preserving digital content is much greater and much more challenging. However, despite this knowledge, the Minnesota Historical Society has announced that it will abandon a decade’s old practice of collecting and microfilming 400 local newspapers from around Minnesota. Instead it will attempt to preserve their content digitally.

The newspaper office of the Aitkin Independent Age, around 1938. Minnesota Historical Society photo.

The newspaper office of an Aitkin, Minnesota, newspaper, around 1938. Minnesota Historical Society photo.

The policy was described in several recent emails from Michael Fox, Deputy Director for Programs at the Minnesota Historical Society, to concerned writers and historians, including one dated June 9, 2009 to the noted Minnesota writer Cheri Register (author of Packinghouse Daughter and other books):

What is accurate in the comments you have heard is the fact that the Society will be discontinuing the microfilming of newspapers. We simply are looking for other, more efficient ways to preserve and make them accessible. Perhaps a misunderstanding of that fact has lead to the conclusion that will discontinue collecting them. We will, but only in a physical sense. The two major metro newspapers and 13 other regional papers are microfilmed commercially. We have not filmed them ourselves for years but instead have purchased copies from these vendors. We will continue to do so. We are looking at a variety of ways to acquire the remaining titles directly in electronic form or scan them. We also have a major initiative to scan older newspapers for online access.

In other words, the Historical Society plans to abandon a proven method of preserving newspapers in favor of one that is more difficult and more challenging.

It should be noted that preserving Minnesota’s newspapers has been a longtime activity of the Minnesota Historical Society. Alexander Ramsey, Minnesota’s first territorial governor and first president of the Historical Society’s governing board stated in an early speech to the legislature that newspapers were “the daybooks of history.” He called for the importance of preserving “a copy of each and every newspaper that may be published in the Territory.” The Society’s library has been collecting and preserving the territory’s and state’s newspapers ever since. In a recent proposal for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, to digitize portions of its newspaper microfilm collection for the Library of Congress’s Digital Library, the Historical Society stated:

The newspaper collection is one of the most valuable, most used and most extensive. The Society holds the largest collection of Minnesota newspapers of any repository, represented by over 4000 titles. The dates of the collection range from 1849 to the present and it includes daily, weekly, non-English language, labor, ethnic, reservation, legal, prison, religious, political and school papers. Virtually the entire collection has been microfilmed. Catalog records were created and contributed to CONSER/OCLC by the Society which was selected to represent Minnesota in the United States Newspaper Program (USNP). The newspaper collection receives intensive use from library patrons, for a variety of purposes, from scholarly research to family history, and serves users statewide and nationwide through Inter Library Loan (ILL). The collection is especially important because of Minnesota’s role as a cultural and economic center in the Upper Midwest and its historical significance in the economic development of the entire Northwest.

Preserving newspapers has been a contingent part of the funding received by the Historical Society from the Minnesota legislature beginning early in the Society’s history. A bill passed by the Minnesota Legislature in 1869 (S.F. 111) stated that the Society in partial consideration for an appropriation of $2,000 would: “cause to be properly assorted and bound, their collection of unbound state newspapers; and should any of their files of said papers be deficient, they are authorized to perfect the same, as far as can be done, from the unbound newspapers accumulated by the state in exchange for copies of its laws and session journals.”

More recently, starting in 1984 and continuing today, the Society the role of the Society in relation to Minnesota’s newspapers was further defined in the legal definition of a “qualified newspaper,” one which is eligible to publish official notices of legal actions. The law provided that such newspapers would “file a copy of each issue immediately with the State Historical Society.”

These provisions are some of the dozens in Minnesota law in which the Historical Society, a 501 (c) 3 non-profit has been given various public tasks to perform in return for its annual appropriations from the legislature. In the case of the law regarding qualified newspapers, the task asked of the Historical Society is to be a repository for official newspapers publishing legal notices, among other things. It is clearly in the interest of the state and of other levels of government that there be a reliable place in which past notices and other legal acts requiring publication be preserved in an unchanging form. As a non-profit, non-state agency, the Historical Society would be free to decline the money it receives from the state if it wish to refrain from performing the tasks asked of it. Of course lawyers working for the Historical Society could present the argument that the law only says that newspapers must file copies with the Historical Society, but does not require the Historical Society to do anything with them. Perhaps the Historical Society could file the newspapers in dumpsters and still be within the letter, though not the spirit, of the law.

The Minnesota Historical Society has been a pioneer in the creation and use of microfilm as medium for the storage of documents. Here is a view of an early microfilm viewer of the kind used at the Historical Society from the 1930s to the 1960s. Minnesota Historical Society photo.

The Minnesota Historical Society has been a pioneer in the creation and use of microfilm as medium for the storage of documents. Here is a view of an early microfilm viewer of the kind used at the Historical Society from the 1930s to the 1960s. Many better ways exist today to view microfilm, print hard copies from it, and digitize it. Microfilm remains an important and stable tool for the preservation of documents. Minnesota Historical Society photo.

However, for more than 30 years, the Historical Society has adhered to the letter and the spirit of the law and its own historical traditions by microfilming the newspapers it receives, including not only official newspapers but many other daily and weekly newspapers from every county in the state. The announcement that it would not collect or microfilm a large proportion of the newspapers it has received in the past raises important legal questions about the duties of the institution under state law. But it also raises questions about the nature of preservation and the advisability of replacing microfilm with digital storage technology.

What was not mentioned in Michael Fox’s description of the implementation of these changes was the problematic nature of digitization as a form of preservation. The problem relates to questions about the continuing use of particular software and the  longevity of the physical media used to back up digital records. As noted, the Society’s own Director of its Library, Publications, and Collections has noted the difficulty of preserving digital documents. His opinion accords with many other experts, including the Library of Congress, which has stated that the preservation of objects that are “born digital” is more challenging than the perpetual care of paper.

The possibility that digitization of newspapers could be used as a form of preservation is still untested. In 2007, the MHS received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to work with the Library of Congress to digitize the an selection of Minnesota newspapers for the National Digital Newspaper Program. For the purpose of this project the Historical Society has been scanning and indexing a selection of newspapers already on microfilm. Notably, however, the project description does not describe its purpose as a preservation one. Rather, the project was designed to improve access: “Digitizing the newspapers and making them available online would greatly increase their usage and value.”

At the completion of the project the Historical Society will supply the the Library of Congress with duplicate negatives of the newspaper microfilm: “For each microfilm reel digitized, the Society will transfer a second-generation duplicate silver negative microfilm, made from the camera master, barcoded (LC to supply barcodes for all reels).” Clearly for the purposes of this project, the microfilm, not the scanned versions, was to be the primary preservation medium. Indeed a description of the Library of Congress Digital Library Program states: “However, a major program assumption is that digital surrogates provide efficient access to the content but are not intended to replace originals which remain secure and protected in appropriate storage.” It is clear that had the Minnesota Historical Society offered to supply the Library of Congress with scanned pdfs without the backup microfilm, it would not likely have received its current NEH grant.

Other agencies have raised questions about the whole concept of digitization as preservation. The Washington State Library in a site devoted to “Digital Best Practices” states that:

Preservation of digital objects is little understood and no one has yet perfected the methods that will assure that a digital version of any material will survive over time. The National Archives recommends that public records and permanent copies of documents be preserved in an “eye readable” format. Eye readable for the most part is still paper copies or microforms that can be viewed on readers.

Digital preservation issues are a continuing subject for discussion, as evidenced by the various presentations at the recent Minnesota Digital Library annual meeting. And it may be that the chances for achieving real preservation through digitization are improving. Digital archivists are increasingly using the portable document format (pdf) as a long term software format for storage, the same format that is being used in the Minnesota Historical Society’s newspaper scanning project.

But the reliability of the media used for the physical storage of digital pdf files-whether on cds, dvds, hard drives-is another matter. CDs and DVDs-which many people use to back up their computers-do not have a proven record of longterm stability. The safest route for digital storage is simply to keep copying and recopying digital records and store them on multiple media in multiple places, a practice that will certainly raise the long term costs of digitization.

Of course mass media of various kinds have faced preservation issues. Until the 1940s most black and white film was silver nitrate-based, an unstable medium that could self-destruct or even combust, if not stored safely. Nonetheless these problems were solved with the development of safety film starting as early as 1909. Improved processing made film storage greatly more reliable. Black and white film technology, the technology used to copy and preserve newspapers is now a mature medium. Microfilm can be stored safely for hundreds of years. Multiple copies can be made. It can be viewed with minimal technology. If you had to do it, you could even view a roll of microfilm with candlelight and a magnifying glass.

Given the drawbacks for digital storage and access there are cases in which one would achieve greater long term storage prognosis by printing (using printers using inks or toner with long-term stability) on archival, acid-free paper as a backup for precarious digital storage. Further, contrary to what many people may think, there are few cases in which it would make sense to throw away old film or photos and rely on scanned, digital versions as the only means of storage.

Given all these factors, digitization of non-digital records is a poor long term solution for preservation. Digitization does not amount to preservation except in the sense of preserving original documents from wear and tear. The bottom line is that by eliminating the collecting and microfilming of newspapers the Minnesota Historical Society is trading a proven, reliable, and comparatively inexpensive storage medium with one that is unproven and may in the long term be more expensive. For this reason, even if the Historical justifies its elimination of a program which the Minnesota legislature has mandated it to do, on its own terms digitization is not the panacea many would like to suggest.

More on the issues of digitization and the future of the Minnesota Historical Society, in later installments of this series.

Lucile M. Kane: Minnesota historian and archivist, one of the “Greatest Generation”

Lucile M. Kane died on May 30, 2009. In terms of the profession of history in Minnesota, she was truly one of the “Greatest Generation.” A historian and archivist, she was committed to collecting and making available to the public the manuscript records of Minnesota’s history, for today and for tomorrow. During her years as Curator of Manuscripts at the Minnesota Historical Society, and as Minnesota State Archivist, she collected many important groups of  records and started the ambitious program of microfilming through which the MHS has helped preserve its collections and disseminate the information contained in them. She also wrote and edited many important books and articles on Minnesota history, continuing the legacy begun by earlier generations of curators and archivists at the Historical Society, who combined collecting and cataloging with a vital interest in the history of this state.  Lucile Kane was a modest, pleasant, good-humored, and intelligent person, and a dogged researcher. Through her work she inspired several generations of historians and archivists at the MHS and throughout the country. The best honor that the Minnesota Historical Society can give her is to continue to carry out the important mission of the Historical Society to collect the manuscript records of Minnesota’s past and make them available to present and future generations.


Lucile M. Kane, in 1951, looking through a uncatalogued collection of manuscripts, with the enthusiasm she always showed for her job. Minnesota Historical Society photograph.

What follows is Lucile Kane’s obituary, received in an email today. In its original form the obituary mispelled her first name, putting in a double-l. That has been corrected.

Lucile M. Kane, age 89 of Kaukauna, formerly of Plum City, WI, St. Paul, MN and Bloomer, WI Born: March 17, 1920 Died: May 30, 2009 at St. Paul Elder Services, Kaukauna. Lucile was the daughter of Emery and Ruth (Coaty) Kane. She was born and raised in the Town of Salem, Pierce County, rural Plum City. She graduated from Ellsworth High School. Lucile graduated from River Falls College and then taught at Osceola High School. She went on to receive her Masters Degree from the University of Minnesota. Lucile worked as the Curator of Manuscripts for the Minnesota History Society. In 1975 she was appointed State Archivist for the State of Minnesota. A position she held until 1985. While archivist, she discovered the long lost manuscripts of Lewis and Clark. Lucile was a published author and wrote several books and articles of history. Lucile is survived by her two sisters, Dorothy (Shafi) Hossain of Sherwood and Audrey (Kenneth) Cernohous of New Richmond, sister-in-law, Lennis Kane of Plum City, brother-in-law Robert Eder of Amery, many nieces, nephews, other relatives and friends. She is preceded in death by her parents, one brother Sheldon “Bud” Kane and two sisters, Georgia “Sr. Alora” and Leona Eder. Private Funeral Services will be 11:00 AM Saturday, June 6, 2009 at St. John’s Catholic Church in Plum City. Rev. Ambrose Blenker will officiate. Burial will be in the church cemetery. Friends may call one hour prior to services at the church on Saturday. Memorials proffered to the Alzheimer’s Association, Women’s Shelters and the Humane Association.

Here is a biographical sketch of Lucile Kane from the Minnesota Historical Society website:

Lucile Marie Kane, a nationally recognized scholar in the fields of state and western American history, was born at Maiden Rock, Wisconsin on March 17, 1920, to Emery John and Ruth (Coty) Kane. She earned a bachelor of science degree at River Falls State Teacher’s College (later known as the University of Wisconsin-River Falls) in 1942, and a master of arts degree in history from the University of Minnesota in 1946.

She taught at Osceola High School (Osceola, Wisconsin) from 1942 to 1946; worked for the University of Minnesota Press (1945-1946); and was a research fellow and editor for the Forest Products History Foundation (Saint Paul, 1946-1948). She was curator of manuscripts at the Minnesota Historical Society from 1948 to 1975, and Minnesota state archivist from 1975 until retiring on July 1, 1979. Kane was a senior research fellow at the Society (1979-1985), and a senior research fellow emeritus (1985- ).

Kane edited and translated a substantial book entitled Military Life in Dakota: The Journal of Philippe Regis de Trobriand (1951). She contributed to The Public Lands: Studies in the History of the Public Domain, which was edited by Vernon Carstensen (1963). In 1966 she published The Waterfall that Built a City: The Falls of St. Anthony in Minneapolis, which was later updated and published as The Falls of St. Anthony: The Waterfall that Built Minneapolis (1987). She helped edit The Northern Expeditions of Major Stephen H. Long (1978), and with colleague Alan Ominsky co-authored Twin Cities: A Pictorial History of Saint Paul and Minneapolis (1983). Kane authored various articles that appeared in such periodicals as Minnesota History, Wisconsin Magazine of History, Business History Review, Agricultural History, and The American Archivist.

Can the Greatest Generation save Historic Fort Snelling?

Is a benign historical interpretation possible for Historic Fort Snelling, one that ignores the events of 1862-63 and and other tragic aspects of the fort for Dakota people? For years the Minnesota Historical Society has been groping for such a possibility. The latest attempt to put this benign interpretation into effect is the effort to associate the Greatest Generation–the subject of a new exhibit at the History Center–with a site that was reconstructed in the 1960s to represent the fort as it existed in the late 1820s.  Will it work to cloak and 1820s fort with the Greatest Generation? Not if the Historical Society wishes to carry out accurate interpretation. In fact, interpreting the Greatest Generation at Historic Fort Snelling in any consistent way would require nothing less than the removal of half of the current fort.

The schedule for the June 13-14 weekend at Historic Fort Snelling describes the re-enactment of an odd juxtaposition of historic periods at the 1820-period fort:

Travel back to the World War II era to learn about Minnesota’s role on battlefields and at home. Costumed staff, period displays, weapon firing demonstrations and an encampment of Allied reenactors occupy the historic fort during this special weekend devoted to “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation.” Participate in many hands-on WWII activities for families including crafts, games and obstacle course. Winning films from the 2008 Greatest Generation Film project will be shown in the Visitor Center. Learn more about the Greatest Generation from the exhibit “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation: The Depression, The War, The Boom” at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.

It is true that Fort Snelling as a whole did serve as the entry point and exit point for soldiers who entered the Army during World War II. But that had little to do with Historic Fort Snelling, the place first built in the 1820s and reconstructed in the 1960s. When soldiers entering the Army in the 1940s came to Fort Snelling, there were a few buildings standing from the original fort, including the Round Tower, the Commandant’s House and officers’ quarters. But these buildings had been greatly altered since the 19th century. The original walls of the fort and many other structures were long gone.

Apparently this did not prevent World War II soldiers from making associations with the original fort. As historian Stephen Osman states on the Minnesota Historical Society website:

Minnesota’s Historic Fort Snelling, designed as a military outpost when built in the early part of the 19th century, was called into active duty one last time during World War II. For 300,000 young men of Minnesota’s Greatest Generation, the fort represented their gateway into military service. At the end of the war, it represented their ticket out.

What was Fort Snelling during World War II? Physically it was a vast complex of offices, warehouses, rail yards, barracks, parade grounds and classrooms sprawled over a 1,500-acre site above the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. It was buildings as old as 120 years – solid brick and stone structures on park like green lawns studded with mature elms – and hundreds of tar paper and wood frame huts heated with coal stoves.

But more importantly, what was Fort Snelling to those who experienced it – over 600,000 men and women during the war years? To a regular army officer or enlisted man, the post’s historical character made a strong impression. The commander of the Reception Center wrote in 1943:

“When I stood at the commandant’s house overlooking the junction of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers and gazed about me, I could hardly fail to realize that I was stationed at a post that was physically older than most of the other forts and posts in the Middle West. How far back in the nation’s history this Fort Snelling reached! I could turn and see two buildings that actually dated from the 1820s – the Round Tower, the oldest man-made structure in Minnesota, and the Hexagonal Tower still guarding the actual junction of the two rivers, though its gun ports are laughable now when one considers the size of modern artillery…. Fort Snelling took its place in the vision of a coast-to-coast United States–a picture, incidentally, that few men were capable of envisioning in the year of our Lord 1820!…the men who were responsible for erecting Fort Snelling were not ordinary bureaucrats, but patriots who dared to love their country well enough to think and plan for its future.”

It is not surprising that soldiers of later generations might view Historic Fort Snelling in this light, glossing over the unpleasant associations that might come from a more careful reading of the history of the fort, remembering only the service to their country of those who were stationed there in the 19th century. But historians have an important role to remind their fellow citizens of both the good and the bad in their history, including the fact that for much of the 19th century Fort Snelling, both the original fort and the expanded fort on the Upper Bluff, was associated with a longterm war against Indian people. And as stated before, associations aside, the bottom line is that if one were to commemorate Historic Fort Snelling as seen by World War II soldiers it would be the place before its reconstruction in the 1960s. So, if the connection of the Greatest Generation to Fort Snelling is to be one of the reasons for the Historical Society to continue to operate Historic Fort Snelling, accuracy requires the careful removal of all the changes made to restore the 1820s-era fort.

Historic Fort Snelling looking east from the Fort Snelling Bridge, in 1939, when the Works Progress Administration was engaged in a project to restore some of the stone work on the fort.

Historic Fort Snelling looking east from the Fort Snelling Bridge, in 1939, during a Works Progress Administration project to restore some of the stone work of the outer wall below the fort. The structures in the background were substantially the same during World War II and little was done to restore the fort to the 1820s era until after the Minnesota Statehood Centennial, during the 1960s. Minnesota Historical Society photograph.

Fort Snelling's old Round Tower as it looked to the Greatest Generation in 1942, covered with ivy and surrounded by a grassy lawn. Minnesota Historical Society photo.

Fort Snelling's old Round Tower as it looked to the Greatest Generation in 1942, covered with ivy and surrounded by a grassy lawn. Minnesota Historical Society photograph.

Here’s what the Historical Society has planned at Historic Fort Snelling in June 2009, according to a recent press release.

World War II Weekend
June 13 and 14, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Travel back to the World War II era to learn about Minnesota’s role on battlefields and at home. Costumed staff, period displays, weapon firing demonstrations and an encampment of Allied reenactors occupy the historic fort during this special weekend devoted to “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation.” Participate in many hands-on WWII activities for families including crafts, games and obstacle course. Winning films from the 2008 Greatest Generation Film project will be shown in the Visitor Center. Learn more about the Greatest Generation from the exhibit “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation: The Depression, The War, The Boom” at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.
Cost: Activities are included with regular admission fee of $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and college students, $5 for children ages 6-17.

Historic Fort Snelling Craft Program
June 13, 11 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m.
Join in a free craft activity that helps participants learn about Minnesota’s role in World War II. This hour-long program is offered as part of Historic Fort Snelling’s World War II Weekend program. Space for the craft program is limited, but any child under 16 may register in person from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. for a chance to win a free American Girl doll. Craft sessions are held at 11 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m. The drawing will be held at 4:30 p.m.
Cost: Craft activity is included with regular admission fee of $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and college students, $5 for children ages 6-17.

Blacksmith for a Day
June 21, 1 to 4 p.m.
Join the skilled tradesmen of the fort at blacksmithing. Select a project with the smith, work the forge, pound out the hot metal, and shape the iron using hammer and tongs as it was done two centuries ago. Bring the project home to impress family and friends. Children ages 12-17 must be accompanied by an adult. Groups of up to eight people can participate with advance reservations.
Cost: $33; $30 for MHS members. Reservations are required. Call call 612-726-1171 or register online at

Civil War Walking Tour
June 27, 10 a.m.
More than 24,000 troops trained for the Civil War at Fort Snelling, including the famous 1st Minnesota Regiment, which played a vital role in the victory at Gettysburg. In 1862-3, Minnesota volunteers were called upon to fight the Dakota in western Minnesota. After five weeks of fighting the Dakota were defeated, resulting in the tragic internment of over 1,600 Dakota in the river flats below the fort. This special walking tour will focus on the fort from 1858 to 1865, including the role President Lincoln played in the trials of the Dakota, and a walk down to the memorial located where the Dakota were held over the deadly winter of 1862-63. This tour does not include admission to Historic Fort Snelling.
Cost: $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and $4 for children 6-17, with a $2 discount for MHS members.

Upper Post Walking Tour
June 28, noon
Fort Snelling served as an induction and training center during World War II with more than 300,000 members of Minnesota’s Greatest Generation beginning their military life there from 1941-1945. The Fort also trained several special groups, including military police, railroad engineers, and Japanese translators at the Military Intelligence Language School. During the special tour, start in the Visitor Center where a World War II map shows the Fort extending to include the National Cemetery. Then follow a guide on a two-mile loop to the Upper Post, where many World War II-era buildings still stand, including the old barracks, headquarters and other structures that were a part of the biggest military base in Minnesota. This tour does not include admission to Historic Fort Snelling.
Cost: The fee is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and $4 for children 6-17, with a $2 discount for MHS members.