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Church History Library Open House

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 13, 2009

The new library opens on June 22, at 9:00 a.m., with public open houses scheduled yesterday and today, 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. If you live near enough to Salt Lake City to go to the open house today, stop reading and get going. It will be well worth your time.

The tour begins with a short (15- or 20-minute) video on the importance of history to church life. Its opening could have been taken straight from Keepa’s play book: “The history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the story of people,” a narrator says, over a montage of photos of people, modern and antique, from cultures around the world, mostly portraits, a few activities. I recognized many of the historic portraits – there was B.H. Roberts in his hobo disguise, Jane Manning James, (Elijah Abel’s photo appeared later in the movie), and others that you will recognize.

As with most Church-made films, this one was right on the line between sentimental and smarmy – the little actress was insanely cute, there were a few too many trembling lips and quivering chins, a few too many Meaningful Glances. Yet I suppose most viewers will love it: Even though I realized exactly which lines and glances were manipulating my emotions, I still couldn’t keep from tearing up. I heard sniffles and saw other hands wiping eyes, so I wasn’t alone.

After a little too much repetition in the opening minutes (voice overs in a mix of obviously international voices), the main part of the movie dramatized a well-known incident from Church history (I’ll add a comment later to identify it, but don’t want to spoil it for anybody who might go to the open house). We saw the event dramatized; we saw a dramatization of the main character recording the event in his journal; we saw a dramatization of the man’s daughter, all grown up, copying the incident from his journal to her history; then the scene dissolved into a real shot of the daughter’s history, opened to the page where the incident is recorded, which history is part of the Church’s collection. (I guess the father’s original diary is not; it would have been more dramatic to have omitted the copying by the daughter if that hadn’t been necessary). That history is one of many items displayed in the library during this period of tours and open houses.

From the movie room, with its high tech computer controls built right into the wall, you tour the rest of the building at your own pace. Plastic carpet protectors are laid out to mark the path you should follow, and there are arrows and/or missionary guides at every point where you might turn in the wrong direction. Somebody has planned a labyrinthine path through several floors of the building, taking you through or past just about every key area you could ever hope to see (it bypasses the deep-freeze rooms for obvious reasons). In the first few rooms and hallways I noticed an exciting range of artworks on the walls; after a short while, though, the art vanished and didn’t appear again until the main reading room was reached. In conference rooms you see displays arranged by various projects – the Joseph Smith Papers, the Church’s Historic Sites people, a display of histories produced over the years by church historians, and other special research groups – along with members of those projects to explain what’s going on. Because the tour is at your own pace, you can zoom right on past, or stand and ask questions as long as you want – I like that arrangement.

You see one of the rooms where historical materials are stored – just a room of shelved boxes, not books or documents, which might have been a security decision – and the parts of the library where donations are received, where cataloging occurs, where collection development goes on, where employees of all kinds have their offices. Most of those areas are, if I can be pardoned a certain level of charitable exaggeration, merely utilitarian in design and decoration – “drab” and “industrial”and “sensory deprivation” come to mind; Dilbert’s cubicle is a colorful, cushioned day spa by comparison. If my working environment were as sterile, my historical imagination and empathy would suffer and you would enjoy reading my grocery list more than you enjoy reading Keepa. Perhaps the best that can be said for the employee work areas is that not a single penny of your tithing money was needlessly squandered.

I don’t mean this to be as snarky as it will inevitably sound, but here’s the place to say this: A notable exception to the colorless environment of the employees is the office of Richard Turley, assistant church historian. His office is large, with a bank of windows facing the landscaped east side of the Conference Center and probably with a view of the Temple, with furnishings as rich as those of the lobby and main reading room. The tour bypassed the office of Marlin Jensen, church historian, but I’m guessing from its general location that two walls of that office are windows, and that his furnishings are just as nice. That’s fine with me – if the money is available, their positions merit nice surroundings. But I know how much of the daily work of the library and archives, how much of the direct assistance to me and to other patrons, comes from the employees in the gray or tan cubicles, and I can’t help saying that they deserve better.

The most interesting of these rooms for me was the conservation lab, where one of the workmen answered my questions about some of the equipment, and demonstrated one of the antique-but-still-functional (and extreeeeemely heavy) machines for me.

Eventually the tour winds up in the public reading room and the lobby, which I have already described. This time, though, instead of being an empty chamber, the library was staffed with many of my favorite library people, dressed more formally than they usually are, greeting visitors and ready to answer questions. The library was also equipped this time with display cases holding photos and documents from the library’s collections. We saw the record book featured in the orientation film, an 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, a Book of Commandments, a book in Deseret Alphabet, diaries kept by Wilford Woodruff, and lots of other items that most of us will ordinarily only see in reproduction or microfilm.

All along the tour, small signs with factoids were mounted on the wall – the number of feet of microfilm held by the library, the number of carpet squares in the building, that kind of thing. But many of those little signs repeated the hours of operation of the library, which is when I first learned of the new, extended operating hours:

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday
9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Thursday
9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Saturday
9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

If you haven’t visited the library and don’t realize it, that’s extremely good news for patrons who have day jobs: The library will be open one evening a week, and a good chunk of Saturday.

Only nine more days until the library opens. But who’s counting?



12 Comments »

  1. Thanks for these details, especially for us history buffs who won’t be able to attend. Someday, though, I would love to serve a history mission in that building. I am crossing my fingers with hope.

    Comment by S.Faux — June 13, 2009 @ 9:53 am

  2. Too bad I’m so far away. The tour would be interesting. I am planning a trip in the first part of August. I have a couple of records I want to look through at the archives. Who knows, I may see someone there I know.

    btw, knowing your shopping lists sometimes include ingredients for recipes published in church magazines, even that could be interesting sometimes.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — June 13, 2009 @ 10:09 am

  3. “one can tuna fish; one beef heart with veins and blood clots; one can dill seed …” Yeah, that’s a shopping list that wouldn’t be inspired by blah cubicles!

    S., the Church seems determined to replace professional staff with missionaries as much as possible, so it would be to everybody’s advantage to have a missionary with your skills and experience. Bring ‘em up on your application and in every interview you have, including those in Salt Lake before you’re actually assigned anywhere. Make yourself a nuisance; don’t be modest. Also, cast your experience as “historical research” or “archival work” or something like that, not “family history” — they’ll think all you know how to do is use NewFamilySearch and they’ll stick you helping tourists at the Family History Library.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 13, 2009 @ 10:36 am

  4. Thanks for making it as though we were there.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — June 13, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

  5. An out-of-town friend was visiting today, so I went to the open house a second time. This time I listened to a conservator describe the restoration of the copy of the Book of Mormon given to Vienna Jaques by Joseph Smith — a detailed and fascinating explanation which moved along at just the right pace to keep it exciting. I spent some more time in the room where they demonstrated technology, like a computer that can scan stacks of full-color documents faster than any copy machine I ever saw, and listened to old voice recordings at various stages of restoration. Brad Westwood in the collections development exhibit showed a rapid slide show of the types of documents they are actively seeking from around the world; one of those was a photograph of a Russian baptism where the elders had sawed a rectangular hole in the foot-thick ice of some northern lake to baptize a convert.

    Even more people were there today than yesterday. When my friend asked oen of the librarians what people were saying, he told us that most people wanted to know how they could learn about their ancestors. There’s going to be some demand for this library, at least until the novelty wears off.

    Oh, and the story dramatized in the orientation film was that of Joseph Millett, whose neighbor came to him because the neighbor family was out of flour. The neighbor had tried several other houses without success, but after prayer, he said, “the Lord told me to ask Joseph Millett.” Joseph Millett gave him the flour, despite his own family’s short supply, and told him that he needn’t repay it — “it is good to know the Lord knows Joseph Millett.”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 13, 2009 @ 4:52 pm

  6. Oh how I wish I could be there!! I’m envious Ardis, positively envious, that you get to spend your time in the company of such wonderful things.

    Comment by Tracy M — June 13, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

  7. Ardis, did they correct the problem of not enough microfilm readers or space to spread out papers, etc?

    Comment by Maurine — June 13, 2009 @ 9:46 pm

  8. Nope, Maurine. It’s even worse than I realized in my sneak peek, because they hadn’t yet put out the mouses for the microfilm-reading computers. The mouses now take up the room I described as “barely big enough for a laptop.” I don’t know what they’re going to do, but as it’s set up now, the only way to take notes is to hold your laptop or yellow pad on your lap.

    One bit of good news noticed today is that the patriarchal blessing office is in its own room down a hallway. That will lessen the traffic in the research rooms, especially the disruption from flocks of bored little kids who so often accompany their parents to make those requests. (I know this feeds the “babyhater” accusations that have been made against me in the ‘nacle. I don’t hate kids. They do not, however, belong in research libraries. Especially when their parents don’t bring anything to amuse them with, and don’t care when their precious darlings run wild at the tops of their sweet little shrill voices. Thoughtless parents. Very, very thoughtless parents.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 13, 2009 @ 10:47 pm

  9. It was nice bumping into you there, Ardis.

    Comment by BHodges — June 14, 2009 @ 12:20 am

  10. Thank you so much for this honest review, Ardis. I do wish I could go on one of the tours, but I won’t be in Salt Lake until later this summer. In the meantime I will be content with your reviews of the library.

    Comment by Phoebe — June 14, 2009 @ 10:17 am

  11. You’re going to love it when you do see it, Phoebe. Right now it’s all shiny and new. The practicalities of actually working in it will no doubt bump a few corners and cause some adjustments that will make it as functional as it is beautiful.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 14, 2009 @ 10:32 am

  12. Thank you for the interesting trip through the library. Hopefully I’ll be able to come see it before too many years pass. It sounds lovely and it’s great that it will be open one evening and Saturday as well as business hours.

    (Total threadjack: That is a lovely article on the Liberty Bell that you link to on the side bar. We were just in Philadelphia last week to see Richard Elliott, the Tabernacle Organist, playing the Wanamaker Organ at Macy’s by City Hall and happened to drive past the Mint and I repeated to my family Curt A.’s comments that he made here on Keepa about the building of the mint. Lots of interesting connections you make possible through your blog!)

    Comment by Researcher — June 14, 2009 @ 4:44 pm

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