Exploring Minnesota’s Natural History is a 12 month, state Legacy funded project that seeks to digitize archival records of early investigations into the flora, fauna, geology, and natural environment of the state of Minnesota. The project focuses on three major collections that contain unique photographs, slides, notebooks, correspondence, and departmental records that document Minnesota’s natural history from the 1870s to the early 20th century. This project will expand access to these heavily used and fragile materials by creating high-quality digital surrogates delivered and described via the University of Minnesota Libraries’ publicly available digital image database, UMedia.

In March of 1872, the Minnesota Legislature enacted a bill establishing the Minnesota Geological and Natural History Survey under the auspices of the Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota “to carry on a thorough geological and natural history survey of the state.” The Survey, overseen by Newton Horace Winchell, also established academic course work in the fields of geology, botany, and zoology, and initiated the creation of a museum of natural history at the University.

The University Archives is the repository of the early records of the Minnesota Geological and Natural History Survey and its successor, the Minnesota Geological Survey, as well as descendent units: The Department of Botany (est. 1889) and the Bell Museum of Natural History (est. from the collections of the Survey in 1875). The Survey collections contain field notebooks and correspondence that provide observational data of Minnesota’s natural environment. Departmental records, reports, correspondence, publications, and scrapbooks document the early geological, botanical, and zoological work conducted by University students, faculty, and staff. The collections also contain observational journals that describe the phenology of Minnesota, nearly 6,500 photographs and glass plate slides that visually record thirty years’ worth of field work and habitat documentation, and approximately 6,500 botanical and landscape photographs taken at the turn of the 20th century.

Digitization of these materials will make the collections more accessible to researchers and aid in their ability to discover information. The 1872 Act instructed that the surveyed materials and specimens be made available “for public inspection, free of cost.” Digital conversion and online access to these collections will continue to honor that spirit.

This project is supported by a grant from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund of the Minnesota Clean Water, Land and Legacy constitutional amendment.