My first research trip to the Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was many years ago, when it was nestled on the main floor of the Church Office Building. One had to pass through a security door and by a desk that displayed a proscription against carrying packages beyond. I never asked, assuming it was a lingering memorial to the bizarre and lethal events of previous decades. As I remember, I spent the first, and maybe second day, sitting in front of a computer, pouring over the catalog, trying hundreds of different search queries and listing collection after collection to review as the time allowed.
The Archives are now known as the Church History Library (CHL) and have a building of their own, a temple to our sacred mandate that a record be kept. I don’t know how many times I have gone to the CHL since that first day, but every time I have gone I have had a list longer than I had time. I used the catalog occasionally to find various items, but I hadn’t systematically trolled the catalog since those days when I was certainly viewed as a random stranger, with perhaps irrational research aspirations. I know people now, and many know me. The CHL is not just a repository of records to me, but also a repository of friends. Still, for years, peering into the catalog required actually being physically present, a rare luxury to me as I live several states away.
At the Mormon History Association annual meeting this spring, the Church History Department had a fairly large release: a new catalog, that is publicly available to anyone on the internet. And various collections were to be made available online. And the CHL would be digitizing collections by request. And any whiff of previous eras seemed to blow away.
As I have found time, I have once again trolled through the catalog and to my dismay I found several items that I would have surely included in the three articles that I have either authored or co-authored this year. As someone who is something of a footnote enthusiast, this was rather devastating. On a recent trip to the archives, however, I did at least verify that the items didn’t challenge my published analyses (thank heaven). I have also filled up my research queue with hundreds of additional items that I will likely never find the time to access. What follows is my review of the new catalog and website.
In exploring the catalog website, it is immediately clear that not everything is currently available off-site from the CHL. Several links are marked, “This link is available inside the Church History Library.” Among the various items thus marked are Collections Registers (detailed listings of items within a given collection) and Church History Library Photographs. The folks at the CHL have indicated that they are slowly moving the registers over to the new system and as they are added they will be available off-site and searchable. Additionally they are installing a new digital content management system to provide access to photographs through the public catalog. This system will be in place, hopefully later this fall. At that point the public will be able to view many, but probably not all, of the images that can be accessed from inside the CHL today.
In searching through the catalog, I noticed that several items I had previously accessed were not currently listed. Again, the kind folks at the CHL indicated that with the change over to the new catalog, there were some items that didn’t, for various reasons, make it into the catalog by the beta release date. Moreover, it should be noted that each organization that produces corporate records has an individualized retention plan, but when the records are deposited with the CHL, they are to be reviewed and will eventually be included in the catalog (though they very well might be restricted). Thus all things not otherwise legally encumbered in the possession of the CHL will eventually be included.
The restriction of an item results when a collection includes material deemed private, sacred or confidential. The catalog indicates whether an item is open for research, or restricted (or in some cases completely closed). My understanding is that private documents are materials containing information subject to privacy laws, sacred documents relate primarily to the details of the temple liturgy, and confidential documents comprise the General-level administration of the Church and Church discipline. My experience is that the application of restrictions in the past has been somewhat idiosyncratic; however, when preparing the catalog to go on-line a team reviewed the existing catalog data in order to best align the content with the CHL’s current access policies. The CHL’s stated operating goal is to have consistent and systematic treatment of all items. I’ll look forward to seeing how well this framework moves along. In one case, where I accessed an item several months ago and reviewed it again a couple of weeks ago the italicized portion of the following description had been redacted:
Includes minutes and articles of agreement for the United Order of Kanab as organized in 1875 under the direction of Levi Stewart, with Farnsworth as secretary. Also includes minutes for the Kaibab Mining District, Farnsworth genealogical records, corporation and treasury notes, Temple ordinance records and adoption records.
I am uncertain as to why the additional and very helpful information was removed. My preference is for more, rather than less descriptive catalog entries. These details dramatically increase the likelihood of finding what you are looking for.
The catalog has a section for digital content, which currently holds several collections from the previously published Selected Collections DVD set (available for a cool $1,000, complete table of contents here). The stated plan of the CHL is to make the entire content of the DVDs available, hopefully by the end of the year. This section marks a truly incredible development. The Brigham Young correspondence, for example, was restricted before 2000 and here it is for the whole world to see. Additionally for several months, the CHL has been working with Archive.org to digitize previously published, out-of-copyright materials. When searching for a specific title which has been digitized in the catalog (e.g., the Deseret Almanac), there is a link to a digital copy in the item description. Between the future of the digital manuscripts content, the CHL Internet Archive initiative and the Joseph Smith Papers Project website, the CHL is the world leader in digital content of religious history.
If you have an LDS Account (the same ID/password that you use to manage your info on LDS.org and the LDS Distribution website), you can login to the CHL catalog and gain additional features. This experience centers around the “e-Shelf,” were you can save, arrange, and annotate catalog entries. In the past, I have used a mighty and strong excel spreadsheet for the same (hence my catch of the redacted item description above). This is a nice feature, but the software appears to have capabilities meant for power-users, like saved queries with associated RSS feeds a la Google Alerts/News. Unfortunately, these capabilities are not live. I don’t know when or if they will ever be.
For the last year or so CHL patrons have been able to copy certain microfilm manuscript collections to flash drive on site. At MHA the Church History Department team also announced a pilot program to digitize collections by request. In the question and answer period, the presenters were asked if Local and Corporate records would be candidates for digitization as well as manuscript collections. The respondents were clear that each case would be evaluated individually, but they did not exclude any collections. While it is currently not obvious how to make such a request on the CHL catalog, one can do so through the “Ask a Librarian” button on the bottom of each page. I have submitted one request; however, as I was able to go to the CHL before any response was received I canceled it. I think that I will save my next request for a large collection that I likely would not have time to review on site. My hope is that when the CHL digitizes a collection by request, they then make that material available through their catalog.
All things new are fragile; yet I see the CHL catalog and associated initiatives as definitively changing the landscape of Mormon historical inquiry in ways that are difficult to revert. I think that in looking back on the various periods of scholarly engagement of Mormon history, I would not trade my time with any other. I imagine that I will tell my children and grandchildren that I was here at this time working with these people and they (if they are students of the field) will envy me. Now we just need a name for it.