Finding history in the archives

By October 2, 2012

From my experience, historians don’t consciously believe archives are a neutral space in the historical research process, but there is not nearly enough literature on the filtering process that occurs within an archives.[1] I’m not speaking of the difficulties inherent in historic documents. All historians are taught to focus a critical eye on a source, look at why it’s created, and to weigh its biases. But I think historians are ill-trained in analyzing the archival influence of various collections. Scholars need to think about and engage with the fact that historical documents are processed by archivists with their own prejudices, (changing) professional standards, and varying historical knowledge. What have historians missed due to not understanding processing and preservation practices? This opens up a tremendous array of questions scholars can glean in their own research. Below is but a small example of this kind of thinking. It’s in no way earth-shattering, but I think uncovers some illustrative evidence historians should remember.

The Newel K. Whitney Papers held at the Harold B. Lee Library, in Provo, Utah, is probably known as having the second most important collection of manuscript revelations after the Church History Library itself. These sacred manuscripts, however, should not overshadow the bulk of the papers, which are clearly representative of Whitney’s calling as bishop of the church. This largely untapped collection represents some of the most important business, legal, and financial papers of the earliest years of the LDS Church’s history. These temporal papers provide an unprecedented glimpse into the inner workings of the non-spiritual aspect of the early church’s organization and operational procedures. The papers await enterprising scholars to tap into questions respecting the influence of temporal matters on a spiritual organization. The third and smaller division of the collection are personal papers of Newel K. Whitney, his wife, Elizabeth Ann, and their children. This three-tier arrangement of the Whitney papers makes sense on many levels, not least of which is that historians of the early church may not be interested in the personal life of the Whitney family.

The question in my mind is what did archivists do to his papers? A question like that would take a lot of effort, talking with archivists at BYU and analyzing the entirety of the collection. But more importantly, do aspects of the collection, like original arrangement, matter to scholars? I would submit that it does.

Not surprisingly, Whitney’s patriarchal blessing is found in this collection among his personal papers. Archivists confronting the documents would recognize the document for what it is, and would see it according to their understanding: i.e. a personal—even private document. But the placement of the patriarchal blessing had an earlier and different arrangement. Based on distinct but slight red-colored staining of various items throughout the collection, the patriarchal blessing was physically stored next to the 20-odd revelations (bearing similar red staining). This leads us to evidence of not how archivists saw and categorized the records, but how those who created the manuscripts viewed and treated the records. Where some twentieth-century individual saw a need to separate the patriarchal blessing from the revelations—making a decision that some were “general” church records and another was a “private” family record, Whitney or his immediate family saw it differently. What do we make of this early arrangement and what it can tell us of the documents? Did Whitney see himself as preserving the manuscript revelations as historical sources and of important use for the general church? Very likely. Did he see the early revelations as personal documents that deeply affected his own life in dramatic ways? I think so. What about his patriarchal blessing? Did he compare this text with the revelations as a spiritual and worldly guide? Very likely. Did he also see the patriarchal blessing as a physical and public reminder representative of a God who spoke to his children? Given the public nature of the blessing meetings held in Kirtland, Ohio, this scenario isn’t so far fetch as it sounds.

Ultimately this post isn’t about answering the above questions (though feel free to speculate in the comments). Does it matter that Whitney’s patriarchal blessing is filed along with the early revelations? To some it would not. To some—those interested in the reception history of these important texts for example—such data could be quite useful. There’s no question the work archivists do in preserving and making documents available is valuable for scholars. At the same time, their effort to preserve, present, and process history naturally interferes with that history. At times it is minor, at other times, the obstruction is drastic. The work archivists do has a history, and the more scholars using archives understand that history, the better they will be able to counteract any interference that may have occurred. If understanding the creation of documents provides insight into history, an understanding of the subsequent treatment of those same documents should do the same.

[1] A recent and important exception is Francis X. Blouin Jr., and William G. Rosenberg, Processing the Past: Contesting Authority in History and the Archives (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Article filed under From the Archives


  1. Fascinating questions, Rob. I think you’re right about the potential of later interpreter/archivists having a significant impact on how documents are categorized, and, in turn, read by later researchers. Any idea how NKW categorized the pb in relation to JS’s written revelations? Did he have a way of organizing his papers that later archivists then altered or did most of the organization happen after his papers were donated?

    Comment by David G. — October 2, 2012 @ 11:27 am

  2. I recently went through all the revelations, and almost all of them had been (previously – not now) folded for filing and had NKW’s docketing. They also, all or nearly all of them, had been stained along one of the folds with some kind of pink fluid. You could check the patriarchal blessings in the collection to see if they have the same folding and docketing patterns. If so, and if NKW had them in the same bundle, they would probably have the same pink staining along the appropriate folds.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — October 2, 2012 @ 2:21 pm

  3. David:

    Unfortunately like all close scrutiny of records, one is left with more questions than answers. It would take much longer than the few hours I had in looking at the papers to see any categorizing clues. One of the problems with re-arranging the order of original collections is that it often destroys the archival context and it’s very difficult, if not impossible to reconstruct that order. That’s why one often hears the archival council to preserve original order, or provenance.

    Comment by Robin — October 2, 2012 @ 2:26 pm

  4. Robin, What an interesting, thought-provoking post! When I try to wrap my brain around what you’re saying, I start to get a head-ache (much like watching a Dr. Who episode …). It seems to me that what you’re suggesting, as you acknowledge, produces many, many more questions than answers, and that what answers may present themselves depend on speculation–informed and/or imaginative. That said, when I try to pare to its essence what you’re suggesting, I realize that you’re making a very important point about the value of cultivating a greater awareness, and appreciation, of the archivist’s role, or whoever assembled the sources, in collecting, organizing, inventorying, and describing the materials.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — October 2, 2012 @ 6:07 pm

  5. What Gary said.

    Thanks for the post, Robin. This is good and important stuff.

    Comment by Christopher — October 2, 2012 @ 8:47 pm

  6. Good insight, Robin. I spent my career as an archivist trying to deal with these issues. It is so important that trained archivists not volunteers be in charge of collecting, organizing and creating finding aids for archival material. Often historians, which have a narrow view of the documents, can also disrupt the collections. Historians often only focus on their own research questions and reorganize the documents to fit their own interests. I remember when BYU got the Whitney Collection from the Groo family. I believe some members of that family could still tell about something about the original organization of the collection.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — October 2, 2012 @ 11:36 pm

  7. I recently went through a turn-of-the-century stake president’s papers at a university. there was a section on incoming FP correspondence. In a separate box was a folder with stake circulars. There was a stake circular that was clearly related to a specific FP letter, and I thought that it was odd that there was no way to connect them in the collection.

    I think that this is really an important post. The details of the documents are far more important than I often invest in them. E.g., the post up today. I was looking for something else, so I didn’t stop to ask for the original or check the provenance. And that is just the basic stuff.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 3, 2012 @ 9:29 am

  8. Gary: I’m probably saying too many things, but you’ve caught the major point I was trying to make. Archivists, in their important and necessary task of preserving the past, interrupt that past, forcing historians to rethink their interpretation of the past.

    Jeff: Thanks for your perspective. It’s in part thanks to you that I even have this insight. And I would completely agree with you. There is, at times, a critically important distinction between an archivist’s treatment of documents and a historian’s treatment of documents.

    J: A major problem is the separation of letters from their attachments and you give a great example of where that can make an important difference.

    Comment by Robin — October 3, 2012 @ 10:15 am

  9. I apologize for responding in #2 to DG’s #1 without reading the post.

    A major problem with the NKW revelations is that they have been arranged (probably re-arranged) and registered by the current D&C section number, with uncanonized revelations following, rather than original order. When the current canon overrides respect du fonds, you lose any information that the original order might have conveyed.

    Here is one example of several problems. Folder 11 is listed in the register as “Section 84”. It contains two physical artifacts. Two discrete leaves. They are different sizes and thicknesses of paper. These two documents reflect the two revelations that were later combined in what is now section 84. But in the current folder and register scheme, that is all lost to view.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — October 8, 2012 @ 12:17 pm


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