Orin Grant Libby was born on a farm near Hammond, Wisconsin, on June 9, 1864. He was the son of Asa and Julia (Barrows) Libby. He graduated from the River Falls State Normal School in 1886, and taught high school until 1890, when he entered the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received three degrees from the University: B.L., 1892; M.L., 1893; Ph.D. (history), 1895. While a graduate student in History, he served under the famed historian Frederick Jackson Turner. Libby's dissertation was entitled The Geographical Distribution of the Vote of the Thirteen States on the Federal Constitution, 1787-8. The work garnered national attention, and is considered one of the most important historical treatises on the Constitution. Following graduation, he was hired by Turner to serve as an instructor in the Department of History at Madison. Libby and Turner had a contentious relationship, especially after Turner refused to promote Libby to the rank of assistant professor. In the spring of 1902, Turner recommended Libby for the position of assistant professor and chair of the History Department at the University of North Dakota. Turner did this without Libby's knowledge.
Libby accepted the position and moved to Grand Forks in the fall of 1902. While his first pupils were preparatory students, he succeeded in adding graduate studies to the Department in 1907. He also introduced the seminar teaching method to the University, and was a major proponent of what was known as the "Wisconsin Idea." This philosophy held that the purpose of an university was to serve the state's residents. Therefore, Libby plunged headlong into the collection and documentation of North Dakota's history.
The "Wisconsin Idea" was especially evident in regards to the State Historical Society of North Dakota, which Libby reorganized within months of his arrival. He was elected secretary of the organization, a position he would keep for forty years. In 1905, he lobbied the state legislature to appropriate $1,250 to the society. A law was also passed in that same year which held that the society was to receive one copy of every newspaper published in the state. The collection of artifacts and documents swelled the Society's holdings to the point that a professional librarian was hired to manage the collection in 1912. Libby edited Collections of the State Historical Society of North Dakota (1906-1926) and its successor the North Dakota Historical Quarterly, which began publication in 1926.
Libby was especially concerned with the history of North Dakota's Native Americans. He sought to document Native American folktales, language and songs, examined the role of Indian scouts in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and exerted considerable energies trying to locate the village where the La Verendyre family stayed during their travels through North Dakota in 1738. During the Great Depression, Libby secured funds from the National Youth Administration to record documents and catalog artifacts; from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration to survey Native American villages and burial mounds; and from the Works Progress Administration, to undertake an Historical Data Project. This project documented the lives and experiences of over 5000 North Dakota Pioneers, and also provided employment for unemployed persons in all counties in North Dakota.
Libby was involved in the creation of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association in 1907. He served as chair of the Nominating Committee at the organization's second meeting, and read a paper at its first annual meeting in June 1908. He served on the editorial board of the Mississippi Valley Historical Review, acted for a time as vice president, and brought the group's conference to the University in 1914.
During World War I, Libby acted as chair of the Faculty War Committee, and was involved with the Student Army Training Corps. The SATC numbered approximately 200 on campus, and Libby arranged for 400 additional members to train at UND. Before all of the trainees had arrived, however, a flu epidemic struck campus forcing classes to be suspended and placing the campus under quarantine. 320 trainees became ill and twenty died.
This episode caused the relationship between Libby and UND President Thomas Kane to sour. Libby believed that Kane could have provided more active leadership during the epidemic. Libby felt that Kane had "shirked his responsibility" and that the epidemic demonstrated Kane's inadequacies. Libby led a group of anti-Kane faculty, and signed his name to a twelve-page document entitled "Memoranda of the Unfortunate Happenings at the University of North Dakota." In 1920, Libby sought the dismissal of Kane with the Board of Administration on the grounds of "mental inefficiency and moral unfitness for the position." Kane refused to resign, deciding instead to rally his supporters on campus and throughout Grand Forks. Students overwhelmingly supported Kane, and many threatened to withdraw from UND should Kane be removed. By late February, the crisis had passed, as Kane was retained and the students returned to classes.
Kane then struck back at Libby, reporting that Libby was "erratic," meddled too frequently in university affairs, treated his students "outrageously" and was incapable of working with others. In 1921, Kane lobbied the Board of Administration for Libby's removal, bypassing the Deans' Advisory Committee, as well as prescribed procedures set forth in the university constitution, to do so. A faculty committee was formed by the Board to oversee an investigation into Kane's charges. The committee determined that Kane's charges against Libby were unfounded, with the exception of Libby's ability to work with others. The committee could not reach a decision on this specific charge. Tiring of controversy, the committee advised that both Libby and Kane should resign from their positions.
The Board of Administration received these recommendations and offered Libby one last chance to make peace with Kane. Libby did not respond to this offering and was informed that he would be dismissed at the end of the 1922-23 academic year. This decision was rescinded in the spring of 1923, due to pressure exerted by UND alumni. Libby's prestige was not tarnished for long as the student body honored him in 1926 by dedicating the Dacotah annual to him.
As a result of the Kane affair, the Department of History was divided into two separate departments. Libby still headed the Department of American History, while Clarence Perkins was hired to administer the Department of European History. The department remained divided until Libby retired in 1945, after which Perkins became head of the merged departments.
Libby resigned as secretary of the State Historical Society in 1944 and stepped down from his editorial responsibilities with North Dakota Historical Quarterly the following year. Although he still intended to teach, he was informed that the 1944-45 school year would be his last. Following his retirement, he never again set foot on campus. Orin G. Libby died March 29, 1952, of a stroke. His funeral was held at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, of which he was a long time member. He is buried in Memorial Park Cemetery. The Orin G. Libby Manuscript Collection in the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections is named in his honor, as is the reading room at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck.
Sources: Iseminger, Gordon. "Dr. Orin G. Libby: A Centennial Commemoration of the Father of North Dakota History." North Dakota History. 68:4, pp.2-25.
Shafer, George F. "Dr. Orin G. Libby." North Dakota Historical Quarterly. 12:3, pp.107-110.
Numerous additions were received:
From Margaret Libby Barr, Grand Forks, North Dakota: October 25, 1971; December 6, 1978 (78-555); September 23, 1982 (82-1035); January 1986 (86-1429)
From Robert Barr, Bismarck, North Dakota in March and July 1987 (87-1508, 87-1521, and 87-1573)
Photocopied from the Orin Grant Libby Papers at the State Historical Society of North Dakota (79-615)
From Rick Klimas, Klimas Books, Ltd., Warrenville, Illinois, on April 26, 2004 (2004-2672)
The Orin G. Libby Papers have been divided into six series:
Series 1: Correspondence
Series 2: Diaries
Series 3: Research Materials
Series 4: University of North Dakota
Series 5: Photographs
Series 6: Miscellaneous