So read the title of concurrent session 5E of the 2007 Mormon History Association Conference. Earlier, Elder Jensen, the Church Historian, spoke to a packed ballroom over lunch. One of his main topics was the movement in the Family and Church History Department of the Church. This movement was highlighted in the session 5E and portends to be one of the greatest changes in Department’s lifetime.
Elder Jensen shared the new Mission Statement of the History Department, and Steven Olson, the first presenter of 5E did the same. According to a recent conversation with the Dept., this mission statement isn’t ready for public distribution (I would have taken better notes had I known that was the case at the time), but it was remarkable for its outward facing stance. The History Dept., has been the place for people who like to read obscure journals reproduced in poorly lit microfilm readers. Going forward, the History Dept. is going to be the friend of the common member and actively contribute to the goal of helping God’s children make and keep sacred covenants.
Brent Thompson described the new Church History Library, that is currently under construction. The Session ended with Rebecca Olpin whose talk was entitled, “Defining the Church History Audience.” Rebecca described a survey that was administered to American and Canadian Latter-day Saints. Some results:
31% – Church history is relevant in my life.
42% – I learned much of my understanding of Church History from Work and the Glory.
91% – Watch TV or Movies.
53% – visited historic sites of which 93% had been to a visitor center and 80% been to a pageant.
66% – had written family history, and 83 had read it.
33% – had attended institute classes.
She also included some other findings that the Deseret News and Justin discussed. Notably, the respondents expressed the desire to have authoritative (read Church produced) answers to difficult questions and frank discussions of challenging Church history. After presenting the survey results, Rebecca indicated that the History Dept. was committed to meeting the needs of the Saints and that future surveys are being prepared for the worldwide church.
The general message was the History Dept. is going to focus primarily on the average member, by creating content that is accessible via the web or through other media. Olsen said that more people visit JosephSmith.net in one day than visit the archives all year. Obviously, such talk made all the historians, those people that are the few who actually visit the archives, very nervous. Many of the people balked at becoming a low priority. The presenters unanimously asserted that historians will have the same access as they do today. When asked if the History archives would be digitized and made available online like all the Family History archives (currently estimated to finish in the next 30 years) the panelists said that the Family History Materials have the priority. There is the potential, however, that the Archives, one day, will be virtual. If the access was comparable to today, I probably would never leave my computer…oh, wait…
In the question and answer portion of the session, I asked how the Correlation Department felt about the survey results and the History Departments commitment to meet the needs of the Saints. Rebecca replied that of course all that they produce would be correlated. When I talked to her after the session, she indicated that it was her job to communicate the member’s perspective to the Church and I think she is doing a great job. We’ll see how the Church reacts, though I am not sure that JosephSmith.net is doing much to answer the tough questions, so they may need to keep trying.
Mormonism is rooted in relatively well documented history. The recognition that History can help in the overall mission of the Church is an important one. Though this new mission will present endless hours of debate within and without the Church bureaucracy, the potential for dynamism is wonderful. My biggest concerns lay in the de-professionalization of the Archives themselves and with the potential for pseudo-historical schlock.