To say that the study of Mormon history has entered the digital age would be a drastic understatement. Last friday, representatives from the LDS Church History Library gave what appears to be an exhilarating introduction to new web content for both the Library itself as well as the Joseph Smith Papers. (A Mormon Times article last week also highlighted the JSP’s emphasis shift from print to web, though there will still be much printed goodness.) The awesomeness of these sites and their online content cannot be overstated. I fear that if I tried to outline the positive aspects of this I would merely be stating the obvious. Regardless, I drone on. I’d like to outline what some of the best online digital sources are, what the positive impact may be within the Church and the academy, and finish with a few words of caution.
Online sources for Mormon history has come along way. What used to be basic html transcriptions (like Saints Without Halos, BOAP, Uncle Dale, etc.), are now being joined by high-quality images of documents themselves. What follows is the list of websites that include fantastic online digital images:
- Church History Library Digital Collection. Currently includes the Joseph Smith Collection, the BYU Letterpress Copybooks, the Church Historian’s Office and General Minute Books, and several cool architectural manuscripts. This collection will continue to expand, and word has it that a majority of the contents of the Selected Collections DVDS will make it on the site eventually. If true, this will be a fantastic collection of epic proportions.
- The Joseph Smith Papers Project. The website currently contains Smith’s 1830s journals, 420 documents from what will be the first 4 volumes of the Documents Series, and several extremely important minute books. (Including the Relief Society Minute Book.) As the presentation on Friday apparently described, much more material will be put up soon.
- Archive.org’s Mormon Collection. The LDS Library has been continuously putting excellent sources on here for about a year. Lots of goodies to peruse. Things include books, proclamations, hymnbooks, pamphlets, newspapers, etc.
- BYU Library’s Mormon Publications Collection. This site includes basically every major book, pamphlet, and newspaper from the 19th Century.
- 19th Century Publications about the Book of Mormon. A fantastic collection of newspapers, books, and pamphlets from the first few decades of the Church, written by non-Mormon observers.
- Utah Digital Newspapers. Title is pretty self-explanatory.
I’m sure I’m missing some, but you get the point.
I have recently mused on what role documentary projects, especially the Joseph Smith Papers Project, may play in how we as a Church understand our history. By avoiding the snares of interpretation, messages and lessons gleaned from historical texts are much more subtle. They force the careful reader to reconsider traditional narratives, feel a closer connection with the past, and broaden our understanding of the complexities of the historical record. We have come a long way since the Ensign forced Richard Bushman to edit Joseph Smith’s language in an article on the Prophet’s holographic writings. The Church’s decision to place all these crucial documents online, without doctoring, signals an important moment when we are finally growing comfortable enough with our history to allow unmediated access to foundational texts. We have long claimed that Mormonism can withstand historical scrutiny; now we are putting that claim to the test.
Now, to the impact on scholarly history. I will touch on several elements of this possible impact, both positive and negative. The positive value is obvious: online documents means more access to more people. As a student of American history who lives an ocean away from my sources, I’ve grown to sincerely appreciate online access to research material. This digital movement will make broad research much more possible to people who live far away from Zion, as trips to Salt Lake become much less necessary. Mormon scholars won’t have to be located in Utah anymore. Further, silly mistakes and omitted texts become much less defensible. It should broaden the pool of those who do Mormon history. No matter what the negative effects are, this is overall an overwhelmingly positive development.
But there are, indeed, downsides. First and foremost, it can at times encourage lazy history. Previous historians have been forced to toil in libraries and archives for hours to find a nugget of gold; conversely, when all you have to do is open a browser and press a link, things can be taken for granted. Students and researchers may content themselves with reading a few pamphlets, glancing through a few newspapers, and skimming through some books, and then feel like they have a good “grasp” of the issue. Dependence on online sources has the potential to weaken, rather than strengthen, one’s overall background in the history, for using simple “search” functions to find quick answers will never compensate the practice of searching page by page, document by document, and journal by journal, and familiarizing oneself with the larger corpus of records. I guess what I’m trying to say is I fear that online research may discourage good old fashioned work ethic. And this doesn’t even touch on the threat of isolationism: limiting one’s research to a personal computer means losing the opportunity of gaining the research help found at historical archives, both from the staff and from fellow patrons.
Second, this digitizing of history has a tendency to privilege certain forms of history and focus on only a certain segment of people. Records most often digitized—both out of practicality and interest—include pamphlets, books, newspapers, and other printed documents. When texts that are of a more private nature are made available, they are often administrative minutes, office letterbooks, or, with the JSP, the private documents of prominent leaders. While these sources are invaluable to studies of major figures, intellectual history, or theology, just to name a few fields, it presents a pertinent problem: these approaches perpetuate the lack of focus on ordinary Saints and crucial vantage points like lived religion. They continue Mormonism’s emphasis on top-down history, and have the potential to continue the ignoring of non-elite figures. Why would someone put in the hours of going to an archive or perusing a private collection in order to unearth the life of an average housewife, when it is much easier to just stick to the digital sources that narrate the life of Joseph Smith or Brigham Young?
But let me repeat that the digitization process, on the whole, is overwhelmingly positive. I hope that we can merge the work ethic of past generations with the remarkable access to documents we have in the new. The Church should be highly commended for putting these documents online. I can’t way to see where we (as a Church, and as an academy) go from here.
 It should be remembered, of course, that there is still a long way to go. As I remember Elder Marlin K Jensen put it at the party launching the JSP’s first volume: not all historical documents and issues are of equal controversial value. The JSP, for example, still has thorny issues like Nauvoo polygamy to deal with. We are finally stepping our toes in these controversial matters, yes, but we must keep in mind that the water only gets deeper and murkier from here.