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Our Crown Jewels: The Church Archives

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 17, 2006

In the fall of 1983, Dialogue published Davis Bitton’s personal memoir of Leonard Arrington’s tenure as Church Historian, “Ten Years in Camelot.” That essay conveyed the excitement of discovering, writing, and publishing Mormon history on a scale never before known. The essay also records disappointment with changes then underway, betraying the uncertainty, even fearfulness, that comes with change.

Church members whose awareness of the Archives is based on that essay – now nearly a quarter of a century out of date – believe the Archives are “closed, that “all the good stuff is restricted,” even that there is a spirit of hostility and concealment actively working against scholarship.

That just isn’t so.

The Archives are open – wide open – magnificently open. No, you cannot get immediate access to every document you might wish to see. But in almost eight years of spending virtually every business day mining the Archives, I have yet to run out of treasures, nor have I ever disappointed a client by being unable to find sufficient data for a project.

The Archives and Church History Library (recently combined into a single space while they await the completion of their new building) are located in the east wing of the Church Office Building, open 8:00 to 4:30, Monday-Friday. Patrons must show picture ID, but unless you’re among a tiny handful of criminally or psychotically minded former visitors (you know who you are!), the security officer will wave you in.

Many library materials are available on the open shelves, free for browsing and photocopying. Archives (unpublished) materials, and the majority of library (published) materials are requested at the reference desk. While photocopies of these rare or fragile materials are usually not permitted, you are free to transcribe, by pencil, typewriter, or laptop, every word of any document that interests you.

Yes, some materials are restricted, in very narrow categories: An item may be private (pertaining to living people, or to the running of the Church as an institution); confidential (financial records, church courts); or sacred (temple). Those materials are precisely what many people do want to see, of course, which gives rise to complaints about “closed Archives.” But if you’re willing to search alternate records creatively, my experience is that you can really learn as much as you need to learn about almost anything.

Vast collections of papers that have not yet been conserved, sorted, or catalogued are also unavailable. The giddiness of “Camelot” was created, in part, by the freedom historians had to rummage through boxes that had been sealed since the 19th century. More professional procedures are now in place, and until materials are properly prepared, collections remain unavailable.

You may request permission to view items despite restrictions. These requests are very frequently granted – a record may be restricted because minutes of a church court appear on page 200, but an archivist may be able to show you the entry you need on page 100. Requests are granted most often when you are very specific about what you want, and why. (Even so, don’t bother requesting minutes of the First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve, or Council of Fifty.)

In 2003 the Church published a set of DVDs containing beautifully legible images of minutes of the high councils at Kirtland, Pottowattamie and Winter Quarters, early Relief Society documents, and many of the papers of Joseph Smith, Willard Richards, George A. Smith, Franklin D. Richards, Amasa Lyman, Charles C. Rich, Erastus Snow, Lorenzo Snow, and others. This is the first time many of those collections have been opened to scholars, because digital technology allowed the redaction (clearly indicated) of a few names and other confidential details that required restriction of the original documents. The vast majority of the Brigham Young papers, with a few exceptions that fall under the “private, confidential, or sacred” rule, are now available, as are the Salt Lake and Nauvoo temple architectural drawings. Newly acquired journals of missionaries and pioneers are too numerous to list. These collections are published or recently opened, in part because of the desire to maintain copyright of key documents following changes to international copyright law, and in part due to the ongoing processing and opening of useful records.

I liken the “Camelot” years to Nauvoo excitement over baptism for the dead, when Saints rushed to perform ordinances impetuously and with limited understanding. It must have been glorious to act on that doctrine for the first time, compared to today’s methodical search and bureaucratic recordkeeping – but really, which system is more productive? The Archives have similarly come of age, and it’s time to put 1983’s impressions behind us.

33 Comments »

All I can say is thank you. This is wonderful!

Comment by Matt W. — 10/17/2006 @ 4:17 pm | Edit This

Where can one find the DVDs in question?

Comment by mistaben — 10/17/2006 @ 4:20 pm | Edit This

The set was very expensive (”was,” because I think it’s out of print now), so major libraries were the chief purchasers. Search library catalogs for this entry:

Selected Collections from the Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Provo, Utah: BYU Press, c2002), 74 DVDs.

They were produced under the direction of the Archives staff using missionary labor; BYU is named as the publisher because they had the apparatus to duplicate DVDs and handle sales in a way that the Archives/Library was not equipped to do. Incidentally, as much as I’ve used these DVDs, I’ve found only two technical problems — page 3 of a letter was shown twice instead of pages 3 and 4; and one link didn’t work. Their quality assurance was amazing.

Comment by Ardis — 10/17/2006 @ 4:31 pm | Edit This

Is there any talk of scanning in the records for a digital archive? I used to work for a company that did digital archives for Government, and would love to see a digitized Church Archives.

Comment by Matt W. — 10/17/2006 @ 4:46 pm | Edit This

I’ve only used the archives on a few occasions, but every time the staff has been nothing but open and very helpful, and I have been granted access to the material I needed.

Comment by Kevin Barney — 10/17/2006 @ 4:48 pm | Edit This

This year’s release of Selected Collections also has an extra few DVD’s which include the index to Journal History, a very important addition. This is my next big purchase, but at $1000 it might be awhile.

The Church currently has a digitization effort in the works. It is a huge blessing.

I’ll be frank and still wish that access to general level minutes were available, though. :)

Comment by J. Stapley — 10/17/2006 @ 6:14 pm | Edit This

So who does get to look at the un-expurgated “minutes of the high councils at Kirtland, Pottowattamie and Winter Quarters, early Relief Society,” as well as other old materials about “the running of the Church as an institution?”

Comment by ed johnson — 10/17/2006 @ 6:23 pm | Edit This

Yes, as J. Stapley says, there is a digitation effort in progress. Records are being digitized, and the plan, as I’ve heard from hallway gossip, is eventually to make much of it available over the internet. I suppose it’s too early for any realistic estimate of the date or a potential catalog, but that they’re even working toward this goal is amazing. I’ll try to get some current news and report back here tomorrow.

One potential online catalog entry I have heard discussed is the collection of some three million patriarchal blessings. Because of their nature as sacred documents available only to the person who received them, plus direct line ancestors and descendants, that would presumably involve some kind of security screen. It might be something like the internet IGI now has where temple ordinance data are available only to members of the Church, but enhanced so that just any ol’ member couldn’t access a boyfriend’s or ex-wife’s or celebrity’s blessing and use it inappropriately. But can you imagine the labor involved in processing even that single record collection for online access? What a commitment of resources this will take!

Comment by Ardis — 10/17/2006 @ 7:31 pm | Edit This

Awesome article. Glad to see the old notion of a highly restricted archive put to rest.

Comment by Connor Boyack — 10/17/2006 @ 9:45 pm | Edit This

Ardis–

I want to ask a question about something that has always intrigued me: I once spoke with one of your co-workers who lives near me. We were at a social function and found ourselves with plenty of time to shoot the breeze. As this person has had as much access to church documents (including, I would wager, many of the restricted ones) as anyone I know, I took the opportunity to air out all the interesting, silly, funny, and strange questions I had accumulated about such subjects. Included in this litany of questions were some queries about, for instance, the minutes of the council of fifty, the existence of the seer stone and the sword of laban (or, rather, their “existence” in the archives), and some related questions. I thought many of these questions almost silly, based as they were are rumors and speculation. When I asked this brother these things, however, he changed suddenly–he had been giving intelligent and lucid answers to many other questions but he suddenly became evasive, foggy, and sheepish. I tried to press him a bit but he was obviously uncomfortable, so I dropped that line of questioning, whereafter he returned to his normal intelligent self.

Can you help me understand his lack of comfort?

Comment by paul — 10/17/2006 @ 10:28 pm | Edit This

I have to be honest. It doesn’t sound at all like things have changed since 1983, at least from things I have read about. The same kinds of documents people complained about not getting to see seem to still not be out in the open. Not that I think that is a bad thing. Its just not the “big change” this article seems to imply.

Comment by Jettboy — 10/17/2006 @ 11:53 pm | Edit This

So glad you posted this – you’ve had the same experience in the historical office and archives I have. I was so frustrated at the perception that has been perpetuated by rumors from that paper and of anti claims of “secret” archives unavailable. It was my experience that the staff at the historical office bent over backward to accomodate a request.

I still remember the Christmas-like anticipation I had after requesting BY papers information and waiting for the request to go upstairs, wondering If this time I’d be able to see the few pages I “needed.”

This brought back a lot of memories – thanks.

Comment by Visorstuff — 10/18/2006 @ 5:33 am | Edit This

Jettboy, if you insist on spaghetti for lunch, and nothing but spaghetti for lunch, and the chef doesn’t serve spaghetti for lunch, then you won’t care how many other dishes are on the menu. You’ve disqualified yourself as a restaurant critic, though.

“Waiter, read me that list of specials again. And bring extra forks for my friends Connor and Visorstuff.”

Comment by Ardis — 10/18/2006 @ 6:50 am | Edit This

Wouldn’t it be nice just to live somewhere, like Salt Lake, to be able to do some research. And when do you find time?

Comment by glenda Stone — 10/18/2006 @ 10:23 am | Edit This

Ardis, I\’ll disagree with you slightly. I have two points to make.

The first is about the facilities. The last time I was there (which was a few years ago) the single workroom (ie where the microfilm readers are) was small and felt cramped, there was, astonishingly, no way to print/copy from microfilm, and the green-screened computers seemed from a different generation altogether (they probably were, in fact).

My second point concerns access and atmosphere. Please remember that you work there. Regular folks who do research there–not the BYU religion prof or some other big-shot name in Mormon history–can feel intimidated and uncomfortable by the treatment they get. L. is constantly breathing down your neck in the microfilm room. Many of the staff seem to take a rather possessive attitude toward the materials: \”It\’s ours but if you really want to, I guess we\’ll let you take a quick look at it\” seems to be the unvoiced attitude. Once when I requested access to a restricted portion of a diary–which had nothing to do with church leadership, and I provided what I thought was a good argument for why I should see it–the senior archivist sniffed and sneered and chuckled as if to say, \”Who the heck do you thick you are?\”

I\’m sure others have had a different experience, but my relatively frequent visits to the archives have not always been pleasant; other historical archives I\’ve been in are often more inviting.

Comment by Soda Springs — 10/18/2006 @ 12:22 pm | Edit This

Yeah, Glenda, it *is* nice — I moved to Salt Lake after years of hours-long commuting. And I found the research time by turning it into a career, which I realize isn’t practical for most people. If it’s any comfort, I am conscious every day of my privileges and try never to take them for granted.

Comment by Ardis — 10/18/2006 @ 12:44 pm | Edit This

Soda: It sounds as though they simply don’t like you in particular. I’ve done research in the Church Archives and they have been nothing but pleasant and helpful.

Jettboy: There are literally hundreds of thousands of pages of documents that are available today that were not available in 1983.

Comment by Nate Oman — 10/18/2006 @ 1:32 pm | Edit This

There are literally hundreds of thousands of pages of documents that are available today that were not available in 1983.

Yep, I am currently working with a collection that was just opened up this year. I will say though, that he is correct in some measure that certain things (like general level minutes and letterbooks) that are highly desired by many are still locked up.

Comment by J. Stapley — 10/18/2006 @ 1:39 pm | Edit This

Nate, like I said, I\’m sure others have had a different experience. But thanks for illustrating my point nonetheless.

(Who\’s your daddy? The fact that he\’s the curator of the church\’s museum pretty much guarantees preferential treatment, now, doesn\’t it?)

Comment by Soda Springs — 10/18/2006 @ 2:19 pm | Edit This

Thank you, Ardis! I can also confirm that Church Archives have been extremely helpful and open in providing material to non-Mormon researchers abroad. In the 1990s a grad student at the U of Ghent did a study of early Mormonism in Belgium and got copies of lots of valuable material from SLC.

Comment by Wilfried — 10/18/2006 @ 2:51 pm | Edit This

Ardis,

One more question about newspapers, is the “Salt Lake Herald” online or are there plans to have it online anywhere?

Comment by Suzanne A. — 10/18/2006 @ 3:46 pm | Edit This

Comments seem to be coming in out of order, and one I wrote several hours ago hasn’t been posted yet. I apologize both for missing comments that asked for response, if I’ve missed any, and also for any duplication that occurs because I’m about to repeat part of my vanished comment.

First, to clarify a point if I have inadvertently misled you: I am not a Church employee. I work at the Archives daily as an independent, free lance, self-employed, outside patron, the same as any of you who might visit the Archives. The Archives and staff are not responsible for any blunders I make in describing their collections and procedures, nor do I get brownie points for writing positive comments. I no doubt do have a special relationship with the staff because of my near daily interactions with them, and I can afford to wait a few days for requests to wind their way through the system because I’ll be there this week and next week and the week after that — when you only have a day or two for research, no doubt the same procedures are far more irksome.

Now to respond to questions:

4: I have no new information yet; I had appointments elsewhere this morning and haven’t been able to catch the eye of the man I want to ask about progress on a digital library.

6: Yeah, I know. There is little I would enjoy more than being able to root around in every document that caught my fancy! But I haven’t yet exhausted all that is available, so the restrictions don’t slow me down much.

7: If your need to see them is legitimate (as defined by those whose stewardship oversees materials of a private, confidential, or sacred nature), then the short list includes you. All I can tell you for certain is that my name isn’t on the list.

10: This is beyond my powers to discern. Did your tone suggest that YOU believed silly rumors? If so, maybe he didn’t want to embarrass you by telling you outright what he thought.

15: Soda, physical facilities are even more limited today than what you describe, because the Archives have been shoehorned into the same space occupied by the Library on the main floor (the Joseph Smith Papers project has taken over the second floor). The greatest problems will, I believe, be taken care of when the specially designed Archives building is completed across the street. In the meantime, we all make do because the alternative is to close everything now and wait until a perfect situation exists. Some problems take care of themselves — L. has retired. Some of what you see as problems may never be resolved to your satisfaction — there are no microfilm printers in the reading room, not because the Church doesn’t have access to the technology for some reason, but because Church policy prohibits the photocopying of most such materials. I don’t know all the reasons for that policy, but even if the reasons were totally frivolous, that is the way things are. You and I can either work with it by planning enough time to transcribe, or we can decide that the effort isn’t worth it and do without.

The staff you and I come into contact with, by the way, are not the ones responsible for setting policy and have no authority to override it. These people are professionals who do all they can to aid patrons who cooperate with them, and it angers me when I see people march up to the desk, make unreasonably selfish demands, and berate the staff as if they were to blame for the patron’s own bad day. My entire experience has been that if you are as polite and professional as they are, and explain enough about your project to allow them to suggest alternatives if your preferred source is unavailable, they will do all they can to assist you. If you’re rude or secretive or brusque, they will be courteous but not expend extraordinary effort to help you in spite of yourself. Showing a little appreciation doesn’t hurt, either. (Soda, I don’t know whether this criticism applies to you; I know it does apply to numbers of people I have watched over the years.)

20: Wilfred, yes! They never ask whether a patron is LDS or not, or is writing a pro- or anti-Mormon paper. A few of the heaviest users are not exactly friendly to the Church. Family historians get as much service as the most noted author; students are treated as courteously as their professors.

21: Suzanne, the Utah Digital Newspapers Project is working on the Herald right now. I don’t know when it will be put up, or what years will be included in the first batch, but it’s in the works. They’re also beginning work on the 1900-1910 decade for the other major state newspapers. Good things to come.

I’m sorry if I sound irked at any comments. I don’t mean to, but I have a feeling I haven’t been as careful as I should be not to offend. My purpose in writing this post was not to convince everybody that everything is as perfect as could possibly be. I intended only to correct a widespread impression that the Archives are locked up tight, that there’s no use in coming in to see anything.

Would you refuse to read the Book of Mormon because the sealed portion hasn’t yet been opened?

My experience has been absolutely positive in the way of service and courtesy. While, like you, I would love to get my hands on everything that exists, it’s foolish to ignore what is available just because something else is unavailable.

Comment by Ardis — 10/18/2006 @ 5:05 pm | Edit This

“The fact that he\’s the curator of the church\’s museum pretty much guarantees preferential treatment, now, doesn\’t it?”

I certainly hope so ;->…. As I hope was clear, my comment above was meant as a joke…

Comment by Nate Oman — 10/18/2006 @ 5:31 pm | Edit This

#10, I’ve never seen that the sword of Laban was anywhere, but there is a significant amount of documentation that the Council of Fifty minutes and three seer stones (including Joseph’s white stone) are in the First Presidency vault. The FP vault is not the same as the Archives (see for example the history of the McLellin diaries).

Comment by J. Stapley — 10/18/2006 @ 5:38 pm | Edit This

That is great news about the upcoming addition of the Salt Lake Herald as well as adding the years 1900-1910 for the other papers… yes!!!

B. Carmon Hardy agrees with your positive comments about the Archives. In the Summer 2005 issue of the Utah Historical Quarterly, he wrote, “A vital part of this reenergized activity is due to the helpful, welcoming spirit displayed in recent years by stewards of the church’s archives.”

Thanks for the feedback, I’ve enjoyed your comments here on T&S.

Comment by Suzanne A. — 10/18/2006 @ 10:16 pm | Edit This

Ardis, I think I read that records of currently living GAs are off limits, what about ones who have recently passed, are Journals of Haight and Maxwell available in the archive?

Comment by Matt W. — 10/18/2006 @ 11:24 pm | Edit This

Matt W. (26): No. It’s the exception rather than the rule when GA diaries from any period are publicly accessible, but in the case of such recently deceased men you have the additional issue of privacy: if you had an opportunity of personal counsel from an apostle, would you be comfortable thinking that he might mention it in his journal and that your story would be made public through the opening of his papers five years later?

That reminds me, though, that the Archives gladly accepts personal papers from rank and file members of the Church, as long as they have a strong church history component: If you donate your missionary journal and correspondence, those papers will be kept confidential during your lifetime plus some specified time after your death.

Consider sharing Church-related records made by your parents and grandparents. All branches of your family (not just the one who possesses the physical book) will then have the record your grandmother made of her Relief Society service in the 1960s, for example, and that heirloom will survive the house fire you’re going to have next year (condolences in advance, Mike :-> ). The Archives will even microfilm your record and return it to you, if you aren’t ready to part with the original.

Think photographs as well as written documents, too. If you can imagine the value of photos of MIA roadshows from the 1930s, think ahead a hundred years and imagine the value of corresponding YM/YW photos of the 1990s.

Comment by Ardis Parshall — 10/19/2006 @ 5:50 am | Edit This

I don’t know that the Church would seee a church history component to the writings of either my Catholic Mother or My Methodist Father, but I will suggest it to my wife. Her Grand parents have the best overall conversion story I have ever heard in my life.

Comment by Matt W. — 10/19/2006 @ 10:17 am | Edit This

re: #15

Soda, I can’t comment on your specific experiences, but we librarians sometimes do get possessive about our materials. We certainly do want people to use the materials (that’s what the library is there for), but we’re also in a position of sometimes needing to protect the materials from the patrons. Most special collections do not allow unfettered access to all of their materials. The use restrictions I’ve encountered have been because of the fragility of materials, but I’ve never worked in a place where privacy considerations were also a factor in the use of materials, as it is in the Church Archives. I have heard (second-hand) that the DUP has material that it will not allow to be accessed or published because of privacy considerations, so the Church’s restrictions hardly seem unique.

On a more general note, in my limited experience dealing with the staff at both the Church History Library and the Archives, I found them to be both pleasant and professional. This despite my (horrors!) not being LDS and (worse!!!) at the time I was working at the U. They are a great resource.

Comment by Bill Logan — 10/19/2006 @ 6:22 pm | Edit This

Ardis, this thread may be dead, but does the Archive keep track of public talks by current general authorities given in places like the MTC, and are those available. There is a talk by Boyd K. Packer to mission presidents given in the year 2000 that I am looking for, and I’d love to know if I could just simply call the archives and request a copy.

Comment by Matt W. — 10/23/2006 @ 1:51 pm | Edit This

Matt W: Yes, the Library (rather than the Archives) keeps an ongoing bibliography of GA talks. I *think* they’re available only if they have been published somewhere but not if the talk exists only in the GA’s personal records. Easier than getting through the COB switchboard is sending an email request to:

lds.org > Church History > Church History Library and Archives > Contact Us

Comment by Ardis — 10/23/2006 @ 3:44 pm | Edit This

just sent them an e-mail. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Comment by Matt W. — 10/24/2006 @ 10:36 am | Edit This

Ardis:
Wow, these people are awesome. They responded to my e-mail and though they didn’t have the talk on record, went out of their way to contact the office of Boyd K. Packer and get me the information I needed. I was extremely impressed.

Comment by Matt W. — 10/31/2006 @ 5:04 pm | Edit This



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