Re-Introducing the Mormon Texts Project

This is guest post from our Magnifying Your Calling: Mormon Book Geek dept., by way of Tom Nysetvold, the Director of the MTP. Tom is a Texan mechanical engineer involved in the refining industry who likes to hike and read old books in his spare time. He served in the Brazil São Paulo South Mission, speaks increasingly rusty Portuguese, and is studying Italian. He’s married to the beautiful and extremely supportive Elissa Nysetvold.

The Mormon Texts Project aims to make every out-of-copyright Church book available for free in Kindle, epub, HTML, and plaintext formats, forever. After a year or so of slow progress, we’re back in business, with eight books released on Project Gutenberg so far this year and many more in the works. In this guest post I’ll discuss our philosophy, the process we use to make books available, what we’re working on, and how people can help, in that order.

Many faiths, disciplines, and interest groups have recognized that reading is key to developing a rich understanding of their beliefs and have made their classics freely available. G. K. Chesterton, a brilliant Catholic apologist who I’d recommend to members of the Church, has 50 books available for free on Project Gutenberg. To pick a couple of men on the other end of the philosophical spectrum, Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell have 35 books between them. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, by my count (list), has all of 29 books available on Project Gutenberg. This does not become us. Why isn’t more of the Church’s literature available? Is it unimportant? Do we not expect there to be a large audience in the future that justifies the effort required to make our texts available?

On the contrary, I believe that in the future Church texts will increasingly garner widespread acclaim and critical attention. The early literature of the Church is the classic literature of the future; there will be more people reading B. H. Roberts (only 4 books currently on Project Gutenberg) than Nietzsche in the Millennium. The Church is only going to grow; youth alive today may see the Church’s current audience of 15 million become one of over 250 million by 2080. Given what we know of the future of the Church, we ought to be creating a heritage of freely available Church texts to rival anything else in the world. That is why we at the Mormon Texts Project do what we do.

Now for the how. We make books available through Project Gutenberg (PG) specifically because there’s no other site that can compare for having a large, well-established, freely licensed, high-quality, well-defended catalogue of world literature. Books that PG publishes are constantly backed up by mirror sites around the globe, and PG’s legal team defends them against challenges to their public domain status. Once they publish a text, little short of the collapse of civilization can ever make it unavailable.

We follow a pretty standard PG process for creating and submitting books. Archive.org has scans and optical character recognition-derived texts of whole libraries worth of books, including much of what interests us. We start with the OCR text they have available, proof it once to fix all the OCR errors and ensure it exactly matches the original text, proof it a second time to confirm quality, subject it to a handful of automated checks, produce an html version from the text file, and submit to Project Gutenberg. For the first part of the first-round proof and the very end of the process, some experience with regular expressions and HTML is helpful, but the vast majority of the work consists of proofreading.

Some examples of our work ought to give a feel for what we’re interested in. Among other things, we’ve recently published the classic Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt; Orson Pratt’s pamphlet “An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions,” which anticipates the Articles of Faith and contains the first published account of the First Vision; and John Taylor’s The Government of God, which discusses governments of both God and man and their futures, and is one of only a couple of book-length works he ever wrote. The in-progress queue includes B. H. Roberts’ Mormon Doctrine of Deity and The History of the Prophet Joseph by His Mother. We’re waiting to hear back from Project Gutenberg about the copyright documentation we’ve submitted for Talmage’s House of the Lord. This year, for the first time, we’re offering internships through the BYU history and editing programs, and the plan is to have the interns work on The Life of John Taylor by B. H. Roberts and Wilford Woodruff: History of His Life and Labors, the biography by Matthias Cowley that is based closely on his journals.

If any of this interests you, our blog announces book releases and other project news. Release posts typically provide some context, commentary, and key quotations from the book. We currently have a backlog of releases to work through (a good problem to have), but once the blog catches up on that front we’ll post similar stuff about books that have been available for a while, some of which are relatively unknown.

Our pages on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ are tied in to the blog and mostly serve to let people know when there are new releases or other posts. They could use some love (invite your friends and all that) and are probably the best way to casually keep up with us.

Finally, we can use all the volunteers we can get. Our pace of book production is almost exactly proportional to the number of hours our volunteers put in. The whole process of producing a book takes perhaps 30 to 50 hours; a volunteer working an hour every Sunday can easily put out the equivalent of a book in a year. I think of it as being like indexing, only more interesting. (Indexing is great, but if I’m going to read old stuff for an hour each Sunday, I’ll take B. H. Roberts over passenger lists every time.) If you can open .pdfs, read, and type, you meet our qualifications – get in touch with us at mormontextsproject at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. This looks like a great project.

    “there will be more people reading B. H. Roberts (only 4 books currently on Project Gutenberg) than Nietzsche in the Millennium” — interesting claim. Whether true or not, I’d love to see both Roberts and Nietzsche freely available, both now and in the Millennium.

  2. The Other Clark says:

    Why isn’t more of the Church’s literature available? Is it unimportant?

    Well, I think it’s symptomatic of the era of Mormonism in which we live. Today’s “Mormonism Lite” encourages reading only the Standard Works and Corrolation-approved materials. (See any missionary’s list of approved reading materials for an extreme example.) Teachers are encouraged not to stray from the manual–even to prepare the lesson–and Deseret Book is full of kitchy artwork and Mormon romance novels. We’ve lost the culture of scholarship that produced Orson Pratt, B.H. Roberts, Hugh Nibley and Neal A. Maxwell.

    My opinion is that the best non-fiction mormon books were written at least 40 years ago or more.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    I will say that there is a lot (more than several lifetimes’ worth of reading) that has been (and continues to be) digitized. It just generally isn’t available in these formats.

  4. My guess is that there is a lot in there that correlation would rather it not be resurrected to live on forever, no?

  5. Alf O'Mega says:

    You mention in passing Rodney Stark’s projection of Mormon population growth, which he bases on an assumption of 30% to 50% decennial growth. The higher figure gets all the press, but in fact by the Church’s annual statistical reports, decennial growth has been closer to the lower projection since about the turn of the millennium. And since 2009, it has lagged even the lower figure. (Growth from 2002 to 2012 was 25.85%.)

    Obviously the value of preserving texts is not dependent on the population size of the culture that produced them. In fact it seems equally obvious that a lower population growth rate only enhances the urgency of the task.

  6. @ J. Stapley, you’re right in that there’s a truly huge amount available in pdf (we typically work from pdfs that are already available) – strictly, MTP is more about making it convenient for lazy people with Kindles (e.g., me) than about making it accessible for scholars.

    @Alf, yeah, I don’t know what the population will ultimately do, but agreed that it isn’t that important. The real point is that the Church is going to win in the end and our stuff is worth preserving.

    Regarding correlation and such, I think the Church is right to largely apply the KISS principle for lessons and such (esp. in environments with relatively new members and investigators, which theoretically encompasses most of the Church). That said, I’d like it if when people go to get a Church book, they turn to the type of stuff MTP does instead of to Deseret Book’s second tier of recent publications. Some of what we do (notably a recent Orson Pratt pamphlet) is definitely not stuff the Correlation committee would quote from, but I feel like it’s all stuff where Pres. Uchtdorf’s recent remarks that “truth and transparency complement each other” etc. apply.

  7. As an old school member of MTP under the direction of Ben Crowder, I just wanted to give a shout out to the great work that has and will be done by the MTP. Onward!

  8. “My guess is that there is a lot in there that correlation would rather it not be resurrected to live on forever, no?”

    Jeffc- It’s not just correlation. There’s plenty of stuff in the past I’d be glad to have not resurrected and read as “Classic Mormon Literature.” CES/S&I get it right in their “Avoid Teaching Spurious Materials” (or something like that, the website’s been changed since I saw it) that some things are better left out of print.

  9. Kristine says:

    Ben, I’d love to have a lot of things tossed down the memory hole, too, but I think it’s important to have a record of them–we should be embarrassed by some of what Mormons have written, and as a people, we need to be reminded of those sins when we are tempted to a self-righteous assessment of our own virtues. It would be nice to not have Mormon Doctrine or the collected works of Cleon Skousen not quoted in Sunday School anymore, but that’s not worth the price of completely erasing them from our collective consciousness.

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