Step Back in Time

October is American Archive Month and this year the Society of American Archivists wants archive programs to become more visible.

What is an archive? Archives are a place where people go toOctober is American Archives Month find information. But rather than gathering information from books as you would in a library, people who do research in archives often gather firsthand facts, data, and evidence from letters, reports, notes, memos, photographs, audio and video recordings, and other primary sources (

To answer what seemed like a simple questioned I entered our archives; which is one of my favorite rooms in the museum.

The question: What is Accession #1 for the Idaho Museum of Natural History (IMNH)?

Acc. No. 1


                Gift received from Mrs. Charlton G. Laird.

Fossils: (1) head of femur (originally numbered M-10); (2) portion of tusk (originally numbered M-11).

IMNH 35004/288 Proboscidea femur head. Courtesy of Bureau of Reclamation.

M-10 or IMNH 35004/288 Proboscidea femoral head. In cooperation with the Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation.

M-10     Head of femur; animal from which it came not identified. Found by Mrs. Charlton G. Laird on the bead of the American Falls reservoir, summer of 1934. This was a very dry summer, following a mild winter in which there was very little snow in this region, and consequently only a scant supply of water in the irrigation reservoirs. The American Falls reservoir dried up almost completely, and a number of the fossilized bones and teeth now in possession of the museum were found on the lake bottom.

IMNH 35004/286 a Bison latifrons horn core. Courtesy of Bureau of Reclamation.

M-11 or IMNH 35004/286 a Bison latifrons horn core. In cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation.

M-11     Portion of tusk, thought to be from a mastodon. Found by Mrs. Charlton G. Larid On the beach of the American Falls reservoir, summer of 1934.

Today, M-10 is known as IMNH 35004/288 and is a Proboscidea (mammoth/mastodon) femoral head and M-11 is IMNH 35004/286 and is a Bison latifrons horn core. These objects are under the Bureau of Reclamation (BoR) management and reposited at IMNH.

To better understand the accession I decided to research Mrs. Laird. Helene Laird was the wife of the museum’s first director, Dr. Charlton (Larry) G. Laird. Helene wrote lyrics for Max Urban, a German-born composer. Urban also composed music for songs and musical plays written by Dr. Laird.

Dr. Charlton G. Laird, Museum's First Director, circa 1940.

Dr. Charlton G. Laird, Museum’s First Director, circa 1940. IMNH#260.0336

Laird was a linguist, poet, novelist, nonfiction writer, editor and educator from Nashua, Iowa. He gained his bachelor degree from the University of Iowa where he was a varsity fencer. Laird furthered his education at Columbia, Stanford, and Yale Universities. He published many scholarly books and papers. Perhaps the most significant work by Laird is the 1971 Webster’s New World Thesaurus.

Laird was inducted in the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame in 1990. The Nevada Writers Hall of Fame stated “Laird’s love of language is evident in his numerous books, papers and speeches that turn highly specialized scholarly research into lively reading for the intelligent layman.”

When I finished researching Laird, I shared some of it with co-worker, Curt Schimtz. When I mentioned that Laird was from Nashua, Schmitz says “my family is from there!”

Laird passed away in 1984 and although the museum has changed considerable since it started we can still find personal connections to our first director.

If you would like to learn more about Dr. Laird his papers and correspondence are held in at least four archives:

Idaho Museum of Natural History’s archives

Idaho State University Special Collections at the Eli M. Oboler Library 

University of Iowa Libraries Special Collection Department 

University of Nevada, Reno Northern Nevada Academic Libraries

The question was black and white but the answer was full of color.  Archives may just be pieces of paper but the paper represents the people who created them. And people are complicated. A museum is more than a building or its collections; its people with complicated, colorful, and rich lives. And our stories are important and our stories live in archives.