Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Books Fall from Shelves

Books Fall from Shelves

By: Ardis E. Parshall - January 08, 2014

About an hour ago (I’m writing this late on Tuesday evening), in a Facebook discussion about whether “Mormon studies is a one way slog to desolation,” a friend wrote:

I mean Ardis said at sunstone that books fall from shelves in front of her and she miraculously finds answers to research she is looking for and attributes that to supernatural help. I’m not making fun of that but that isn’t my experience nor would it be the experience of the majority of the folks I know. We are left with just raw facts to determine if something is true or happened the way it is said to happen.

My friend was recalling a few words from my 2011 Pillars of My Faith talk, where I said:

I began to have odd experiences, the kind that all genealogists recognize and that all non-genealogists laugh at. Books fell off of shelves and fell open to pages that showed where a missing family member had moved …

Whether that kind of thing is within my friend’s experience or not, I stand by my statement. I can report two such instances:

The first was a then-new publication, Fred Q. Bowman, 10,000 Vital Records of Western New York, 1809-1850 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1985), which, when I picked it up off the floor, was open to page 197, where my eye fell on this line: “7772. Saunders, John m 5/13/30 Nancy Gage in Gorham, Ont. Co. (5-5/14).” That indicates an issue of the Wayne Sentinel of Palmyra, New York, noticing the 13 May 1830 marriage of an ancestral couple. What struck me at the time was less that the book had fallen open to that page, but more the awareness of John Saunders’ amusement at bringing that record to my notice. He wasn’t at all embarrassed that this wedding date was waaaay too close for virtue’s sake to the birth of his and Nancy’s first child.

The other was a typescript of records for the rural cemetery of Prattsburg, New York, compiled by the Steuben County Clerk’s Office, where I unexpectedly found the burials of one of John and Nancy Saunders’s sons and that son’s family, in a place where I had not yet traced them.

I don’t expect any disbeliever to be persuaded that “supernatural help” is responsible. I certainly don’t expect any reader to care about the specific books or the information they contained. I post this because those uncanny experiences were real, and are not at all rare among genealogists (and not only among LDS genealogists: the uncomfortably titled book Psychic Roots and its sequel detail scores of such instances, few interpreted by Latter-day Saints). When I claim to have had such experiences, I do not speak generally or vaguely. These are specific, memorable events. If I had easy access to my paper files with my original research logs (those logs were not transcribed when I converted my genealogical records into electronic files), I could tell you the exact dates when these things happened.

But of course documenting dates and page numbers does not prove that I correctly interpret the events as, in my friend’s word, “supernatural” ones. For that I can offer only my impressions at the time, which remain unchanged today: Books do not naturally fall from shelves as I walk down rows of bookcases. When books fall off shelves for any reason, they do not normally fall open to records I am interested in. When I pick up books filled with dense text that I am not deliberately searching, my eye does not routinely fall on the one line relevant to me. And I most definitely do not usually have the impression that someone is standing near me whom I cannot see, but whose amusement I can sense as clearly as if I heard laughter from someone I could see.

These experiences are not typical of my religious life. They are certainly not representative of my professional research methodology.

But they happen, and this is how I interpret them. I am not in the least ashamed to report that.

And Tom, my friend, you who are so kind and generous despite our religious differences, I am sorry that you found Mormon studies “a one way slog to desolation.” That is as alien to my experience as my uncanny genealogical experiences are to yours.



  1. People show jealosy in many different ways.

    Comment by RoeH — January 8, 2014 @ 7:45 am

  2. Jealousy! (typo) :)

    Comment by RoeH — January 8, 2014 @ 7:46 am

  3. That discussion was … er .. something else. It was actually a surprise that it blew up like that. (Although, regrettably, I did my part to egg people on…)

    I’ve been wondering if people in the field of Mormon Studies are more emotional about the new Gospel Topics than they realize or will admit, and it comes out in unexpected ways like this.

    Comment by Amy T — January 8, 2014 @ 8:24 am

  4. I’ve not had that kind of experience myself, but I have had a couple of friends involved in genealogy research report similar kinds of things on a couple of occasions. There is one somewhat circumstantial discovery relating to my story about WWII sailor Leon J. Folkman that I wrote about here last summer that I have yet to see to its conclusion. It may turn out to be something like this. If it does, you will all hear about it.

    Comment by kevinf — January 8, 2014 @ 9:55 am

  5. I hope we do, kevinf!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 8, 2014 @ 10:07 am

  6. My mother — who is not LDS, but who became deeply involved in our family genealogy when I (as a teenage convert) started asking questions — has had a few of those experiences herself. ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — January 8, 2014 @ 10:31 am

  7. My wife came to routinely expect those type of experiences. We lived in mid-sized California town with an unusually full genealogy collection. She would drop our girls off at swim practice and hit the library until they needed to be picked up.
    When time was particularly short she would often lay out her problem in prayer and walk the stacks. She was prompted to stop at a particular book often enough that she ceased being surprised by it.
    Last night she announced that she needed to work on one particular line because they were bothering her. I’m sure a big breakthrough is coming up.
    Now if my ggrandfather would get similarly motivated….

    Comment by STW — January 8, 2014 @ 10:47 am

  8. I don’t have much experience with family history, but I can add my voice to those who can speak from personal experience to “luck” and “happy coincidences.”

    Comment by Gary Bergera — January 8, 2014 @ 10:58 am

  9. I just discovered some things about a new senior missionary couple that will be coming to our branch. They’re from a small town in Arizona, and bear an old Mormon pioneer name–Tenney. I did a bit of snooping to see what I could find out about the family.

    It turns out that the missionary’s father was named Boyd Tenney, who served for nearly 20 years in the Arizona state legislature, one term in the House of Representatives and the remainder of the time in the State Senate.

    A few years back I represented a man in a real estate transaction here in New York. He was Jewish, a native of New York, and lived in the Phoenix area. He was surprised to learn that his lawyer (we didn’t know each other before the transaction–I’d been recommended to him by a common acquaintance) was a Mormon living in Brooklyn, New York, who, by the way, has Arizona roots. And he told me he had particularly fond memories of a Mormon in Arizona with whom he had had some business dealings, a man who had served in the State Senate named Boyd Tenney.

    I don’t know the rest of the story. If there’s something that bears telling on Keepa, I’ll let you know.

    Books falling from shelves indeed.

    Comment by Mark B. — January 8, 2014 @ 11:00 am

  10. As Ardis is my witness, I’ve had it happen more often with strange internet links popping up.

    And not to discount the miraculous, faith and hard work seem to precede the miracle. My amazing discoveries of the past year or so have come after many years of research, thought, travel, reading, discussion, etc. Ardis works a lot harder and knows a lot more than I do so I imagine she already knew enough from hard work to be in the right place for those books to fall open for her. Still miracles IMHO.

    Comment by Grant — January 8, 2014 @ 11:15 am

  11. Actually, my experience is the reverse: These kinds of things happened to me most often when I was a rank beginner and didn’t know what I was doing. As I learned how to find things the standard way, they happened less and less often.

    Other things happen to me now, though, things that I do feel come because of preparation, but that’s another story.

    I suppose I was feeling a little, what? picked on? disrespected? ridiculed? last night when I wrote this, although now I can read my friend’s comment (and he IS still a friend) without finding anything negative about it. I really only wanted to reaffirm that these things do happen, whatever the interpretation you put on them. I don’t want anyone ever to be able to say I backed away from what to me were powerful experiences.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 8, 2014 @ 11:30 am

  12. It’s just hard to imagine you ever being a “rank beginner” not knowing what you were doing.

    Comment by Grant — January 8, 2014 @ 11:45 am

  13. Tenney? Old Arizona family. Ammon M. Tenney (1844-1925) was a notable Indian missionary. I put together a quick bibliography about him several years ago, and Jared T. has done some extensive work on him.

    Tenney’s father Nathan C. Tenney was killed while trying to break up a gunfight in St. Johns. The fight was between the Mormon G— family and the Mexicans and he got caught in the cross-fire. (It was a dangerous time for the Saints there, and the G— family wasn’t helping things.)

    Comment by Amy T — January 8, 2014 @ 11:46 am

  14. Of course things like this happen–and I would certainly expect them too, since I believe there is more to life (and death) than what I can see with my eyes. I just worry when a whole bunch of books at once decide to jump of your shelf and destroy your table. I hope they weren’t going for you.

    Comment by LauraN — January 8, 2014 @ 2:09 pm

  15. Ammon Tenney had a little brother named Marvelous Flood Tenney (after a great flood that ripped through Grafton, Utah). Nathan C. Tenney was one of the founders of Grafton.

    Comment by reed russell — January 9, 2014 @ 3:37 am

  16. I am an absolute newbie in genealogical research. Last year I spent an hour (one hour!) at the Genealogical Library for a YM/YW activity. My father was adopted and I only had his birth mother’s age at the time my father was born and her place of birth, but her place of birth in Saskatchewan didn’t exist any more. To research the census records I needed the township and range.

    I found some promising atlases in the card catalog, but they were useless. Then I noticed on the same shelf a book for people who collect post office franking machine imprints. Since I wasn’t getting anywhere, and I didn’t have much time, I took a look at this curious book. I picked it up, found the post office in the town where she was born along with township, range and section. The post office only existed for about a year and a half around the time my bio-gran was born. I found my bio-gran in the census and discovered her parents and her sister.
    Anyone is free to explain this story however they would like, but that is what happened.

    Comment by Lonn L — January 14, 2014 @ 8:39 am

  17. Lonn, I love your story.

    Comment by Coffinberry — January 15, 2014 @ 10:31 pm