North Dakota has been a state for 129 years and was part of the Dakota Territory for 28 years beyond that. Europeans first started settling this area in the early 1700s, and Native American peoples had been living here for thousands of years before that. Together, we have learned a lot about how to live, thrive and survive in the Upper Great Plains, and our ancestors have documented a whole lot of that knowledge.
But where is the best place to store this information? And, just as importantly, who should we entrust this information with?
Inside the Library at North Dakota State University, you can find the office of one of those individuals whom we trust with our historical knowledge: government information librarian and North Dakota United member Susanne Caro.
This year will be Caro’s first full school year at NDSU. Previous to starting her position here in February 2018, she was the government information librarian at the University of Montana. Her primary role at NDSU is similar to her responsibilities in Montana; she is the liaison to faculty and students in the use of government documents and helps to provide general and specialized reference assistance and instruction.
“My main duties were as the federal regional depository coordinator,” Caro said about her time at University of Montana. “What that is all about is there is a system called the Federal Depository Library Program, and that was really kicked off, I would say, about 1965. But it goes back much further than that with the Government Publishing Office first started to print and disseminate government content. So it’s all of the hearings and the debates. And after a while it was whatever the government published, and it would be sent out to everyone, or at least to a number of different libraries, and often agricultural colleges were included on that.”
NDSU works with the University of North Dakota together as a joint regional depository library. According to the UND website, the Chester Fritz Library was first designated a Federal Depository in 1890, and UND and NDSU have shared that depository status since 1968. UND receives approximately 60 percent of all federal government-distributed information, and NDSU houses 40 percent.
“As a regional, you support the other libraries in the program in the state,” Caro said. “North Dakota is actually really unique in that there is a shared repository. And we actually have split the collection so we have half and they have half, which is good because we don’t have huge amounts of space. And it lets us focus — for example, we have all of the agricultural materials. We also have the Department of the Interior. And when I was in Montana, we were a single regional depository. So, then I supported eight, nine other libraries in the state. If they had questions about something or someone had come to them looking for a particular piece of information and they didn’t know where to look for that, I would help out with that and with outreach training and that sort of thing. I’ll be doing much the same here.”
Caro grew up in a small town called Idyllwild, Calif., or small by California standards, as she says. “The population probably isn’t more than 3,000.” She got her undergraduate degree from the College of Santa Fe in New Mexico, and a master’s degree in library science from Texas Woman’s University in Denton, before working at the New Mexico State Library as state document librarian.
From her time in New Mexico, she learned about a story that speaks to the importance of holding on to history and the original documents from a state’s past.
“There was a governor of New Mexico who, when he got to the palace of the governor, decided it was too cluttered and to clean everything out and told somebody, ‘Just get rid of all of this stuff,’” she said. “So, he was selling this material to the butchers, to the prisons for toilet paper. If he had too much, he would start burning it, and people started grabbing it. This was content going back to the early Spanish governors of New Mexico, like a couple hundred years’ worth of records. And that’s actually how the State Archives started, by people rescuing this material and saying, hey, maybe you shouldn’t be doing this.”
Caro says that North Dakota has it written into the Century Code that UND and NDSU, in coordination with the State Historical Society, will receive copies of state documents. “And that’s really important to keep because those are probably one of the more endangered type of government document because it is not collected really outside of the state,” she said. “So, if something happens – and that could be a flood, that could be a tornado, that could be a well-meaning person deciding to get more space and maybe throwing away something they shouldn’t have – there’s only so many copies that are out there. It’s very important to keep that state history, that sort of state legacy that’s going on.”
Because of NDSU’s history as an agriculture college, the collection of agricultural documents has proven to be incredibly helpful for the future generation of farmers to learn from patterns in the past. “We have the Department of Agriculture annual report going back to 1863,” Caro said. “And those are fabulous because they will describe different varieties of crops, different plants, different pests, different ways to prevent pests from destroying crops. And it gives you a really interesting history of agriculture and the equipment that was used at different times or even the pesticides that were used at different times. So if you need to know maybe historically what’s been used on that soil, that can be an important factor.”
Caro plans to visit different parts of the state this year for field days with the NDSU Extension Service. “We’re going to be going up to Minot and Langdon, and kind of do a bit of a circle,” she said. “Mostly we’re going to be hearing about research and what they’re doing at the various sites. And one of the reasons I want to go is to reach out to the people who are working there, and to find out what their needs are and if there’s any way that we can be of help to them.”
She said she hopes to extend a helping hand to all state agencies and employees through her professional responsibilities. If you have documents of historical value, the NDSU Library wants to help preserve them.
“We’re more than happy to help,” she said, “and we’re very much partners with agencies to help them get their message out. We do care about their content. We care about the research and their various efforts. And want to make sure that people are going to be able to access all of the great work they do. And please don’t throw it away!”
- Story and photos by Kelly Hagen, NDU Communications.