Databasing Mormonism

As a chemist, if I want to perform a literature search on a specific compound, reaction, or system, there are several different databases to mine. These resources catalogue articles, patents, dissertations and books dating back to the nineteenth century. Now, my adviser in graduate school is something of a legend, and I was his last graduate student. I remember him describing his graduate studies not too long after the war. He remembered his own graduate adviser saying that he was completely up to date on every article published in chemistry. Today that is an impossibility. There is simply not enough time in one individual’s life to process the flood of information. The databases are now not simply a matter of efficiency, like a word processor, they are an absolute necessity.

Mormon studies is not the publishing deluge that chemistry is; there is, nevertheless, an impossible amount of articles, books, and dissertations (though, as far as I am aware, not patents), with which to be completely current. When I wrapped up graduate school back 2004 and I began taking a more academic approach to Mormonism and its history I was generally oblivious to the published literature. One of the things that helped me to get up to speed was a database hosted by the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History at BYU. It was initially an updated digital appendix to James B. Allen, Ronald W. Walker, and David J. Whittaker’s, Studies in Mormon History 1830–1997: An Indexed Bibliography (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000). It contained the works published after the inclusion threshold of the Allen, Walker and Whittaker volume.

At the end of 2005, the database was taken offline during an upgrade process and by February of 2006 it was relocate to a BYU subdomain: http://mormonhistory.byu.edu/. With the upgrade came the entire content of Allen, Walker and Whittaker’s important volume and regular updates. Initially christened “Studies in Mormon History and Culture” it has since been perhaps the single most important finding aid in Mormon Studies. I personally am grateful to the people that worked hard to index and digitize the vast collection of materials. It has allowed me to research in ways and at levels of efficiency that would not have been otherwise possible.

I encourage those not yet familiar with the database to check it out. I also encourage regular users to take a short survey about it. One of the questions in the survey is “Should the Studies in Mormon History Database cease to exist, what effect would this have on your work?” I can only hope that this question does not indicate a real possibility of the database’s future. The field would be much worse for such an eventuality.

Comments

  1. The link seems to have a typo — “http://” is repeated and should not be. With the second one removed, the address works.

    Very cool resource.

  2. .

    This is what Wm and Kent at Motley Vision have been saying for years. Maybe Claremont or Illinois should do it? I’m not sure BYU and other Utah schools allow themselves to take this project seriously enough . . . . Individuals, yes; institutions, no.

  3. It really is a tremendous resources. Tremendous. I really hope it doesn’t go by the wayside.

  4. Paul, thanks for the correction.

    Th., as I understand it, there was a lot of institutional resources in digitizing all the info. I hope it remains a priority.

  5. I’d also add that earlier in the week I tried to submit author info for myself to the Mormon Literature database, and the form submission failed.

    I don’t know who should do it, but I would like to see a full on Mormon Studies database. I know that for most situations, separating out, say, Literature and History makes sense. But it would be useful to have one database that one can search globally or segment by discipline, time period, etc. And I suspect that it would require some significant institutional support in order for that to happen. On the other hand, if it was set up correctly, the Mormon Studies community could help fill in a lot of the data — it’s the hosting and the programming that requires institutional support.

    In addition, I’d also like to see various electronic corpuses archived institutionally. Things like Popcorn Popping, Banner of Heaven, Mormon Artist and even the various blogs, which seem stable right now — but you never know. Right now most of that stuff either lives on shared hosting sites that would go away if individuals stopped paying the bill or on WordPress.com or Blogger. I’d be happy, for example, to provide periodic database downloads of A Motley Vision to the right institution/project.

  6. Researcher says:

    Theoretically, it’s a lovely idea. In practice, when I’ve used it, I haven’t been super impressed. I just entered a number of search terms for current projects, and did find one additional source about the Eminent Woman I’m currently researching, but other than that, it was a very limited list of sources in every topic.

    And one note that may seem trivial, but isn’t: I saw Jessie Embry listed once as “Jessie Emery.” In all my years of using WorldCat, I don’t recall ever seeing a typo. How does WorldCat do it? Is BYU trying to create the database from the ground up, and it would be easier to use an existing library database program? (Can you tell I have very limited experience in the subject of computer programming?)

    In summary, I think it’s a great idea although follow-through and quality control seems to be lacking. But I just added it to my list of sources to check, since I had overlooked it. (Thanks, J.)

  7. J, I saw this yesterday, and while I am at most a casual user, I am finding the database more useful as time goes on, and I realize how much I don’t know. I took the survey yesterday, and indicated that I would be devastated beyond belief if they discontinued access. Thanks for helping to bring it to the attention of a larger audience.

  8. In all my years of using WorldCat, I don’t recall ever seeing a typo.

    I have, but I’ll agree that they’re not common.

    How does WorldCat do it?

    Authority control in some fields probably helps librarians avoid making obvious author typos. There are also limited provisions for overwriting previously entered data and for adding new data. I will say that every day I come across records that have outdated information (usually prepub data) that I can’t correct globally because I don’t have the permissions. In that regard, WorldCat is not nearly as strong as a wiki.

    Is BYU trying to create the database from the ground up, and it would be easier to use an existing library database program?

    WorldCat is OCLC’s own homegrown program, so I don’t believe it’s available commercially. There are provisions in local ILSes (Integrated Library Systems) for some types of authority control, but they’re not perfect. (They can’t even handle automatically updating death dates.)

  9. Researcher says:

    Thanks, Katya.

  10. Sure thing.

  11. I agree that the finding aids could be improved (also recognizing how much hard work that would take). As a side note, I think that all journal articles should include an abstract and key words, which would go a long way to ameliorating that problem.

  12. articles, books, and dissertations (though, as far as I am aware, not patents)

    I suspect Kyle M is moving to patent the ideas presented in his Church Hacker series. If the Church wants to use any of them, they’ll have to pay him royalties. Smart move!

  13. Boy, now I feel kind of out of it. I didn’t know about this one. I’ve been using the print version of Studies in Mormon History!

    There is a bit of context missing to Th’s comment — I think he is mostly talking about another BYU Library-hosted database, the Mormon Literary and Creative Arts database (http://mormonlit.lib.byu.edu/ ).

    Also very useful is the online version of Chad Flake’s Mormon Bibliography, 1830-1930 (http://lib.byu.edu/digital/mormon_bib/ ). I’ve provided information to both of these latter two databases.

    In addition to these separate databases, many of the individual articles from periodicals are listed separately in BYU’s library catalog — IMO this is very welcome, as it makes the catalog much more useful and finding the information much easier.

    But, addressing the above comments I must first say that BYU has taken great strides in making information available. My biggest wish is that they would get their security issues figured out so that outsiders like myself could help vetting and approving the information submitted to these databases. Seeing submitted information appear is glacially slow, IMO, and is due to a lack of help, from what I can tell. [My submissions to the Mormon Bibliography have yet to appear, for example.]

    It may seem strange to have so many different databases, but, to be honest, each one has different fields for each item. The MLCA database, for example, lists things like genre, date the work is set in, etc., that you wouldn’t expect to see in a library catalog like BYU’s catalog or like worldcat. While it might be easier to have all this information for different types of items in a single database, at some point it begins to get unweildy, and may actually slow down the database (depending on database design).

    IMO, the current level of differentiation isn’t bad — I don’t think we are likely to have many more databases, and I think it may be as likely that some of these databases will merge as that new ones will be developed.

    BUT, I do have to complain about how well BYU publicizes the existence of these databases. How is it that someone like me doesn’t even know that the Mormon History database exists?? Its almost as bad as the situation with BYU Studies’ publications — they put together a lot of very, very valuable books, but don’t bother to market them at all!! Last I heard, the administration won’t give them the budget for a marketing person (Editiorial, yes. Design, sure. Marketing, no. Please explain that reasoning, if you can! Despite the fondest dreams of authors, books never sell themselves.)

    Well, sorry for the rant. And thanks, J. Stapley, for bringing me in out of the dark on this one.

  14. Thanks Kent. I agree that databases can become quickly unwieldy, especially if the search functions are poor. Gospelink is a prime example of this. It is now generally useless, despite loads of important content.

    I also agree that some of the best resources in Mormon Studies are generally unknown, and I’ve wondred what might happen if BYU Studies, for example, started marketing more like DBook.

  15. kentslarsen says:

    FWIW, I just heard from the folks at the BYU library that the back end that allows them to update the Mormon Bibliography is down and has been down for months — so no updates have been processed. I’m sure that is even more frustrating for them than it is for db dweebs like myself.

  16. (3 days later…)

    Ziff, the Church Hacker ideas are all Creative Commons licensed–since most of them are crowd-sourced!

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