One Memorable(?) Event from LDS General Conference History

By October 14, 2014

Earlier this year, Tona wrote an excellent post about the fragility of digital archives following up on Max Mueller’s AHA paper that explored both the possibilities and pitfalls of the “I’m A Mormon” campaign as a primary source.  Tona noted that, “What is available to historians relies largely upon on goodwill, technology upgrades, and the market.”

Within this context, it is fascinating to observe, in real-time, the debate over whether or not the General Women’s Meeting is a session of General Conference.  This controversy includes the editing of a video of a conference session as well as conflicting (and possibly changing) interpretations about the status of the Women’s Meeting from LDS Public Affairs, the Deseret News website as well as lds.org.  While the debate about the status of the Women’s Meeting has been largely framed as a feminist issue, it also raises questions for researchers in tracing changes to historical documents and other sources as well as how ideas get lodged in the imaginations of religious believers. As Tona states,

Things come, go, vanish, launch, in a constant state of (often unannounced) change that nonetheless presents itself as final, unchanging and authoritative… it is a historian’s worst nightmare. If you cannot see the “manuscript edits” so to speak, how do you know what changed, when, how and why? And if the old just vanishes from the online environment without a trace, what happens to the possibilities for historical research? Most of what we are all busily creating in this decade has simply been written in the equivalent of vanishing ink.

The problem is not one that is new for historians – manuscripts have been lost, destroyed or damaged.  However the speed with which it happens online as well as the lack of tangible process makes it difficult to track.  This conflict also highlights the forces at play in the formation of both cultural and institutional memory and raises questions about who controls the historical narrative. Future historians, who study Mormon women in the early 21st century, might use digital newspapers, blog entries or Facebook posts to round out their research, assuming they will still exist.  Data corruption, loss of access and the ease with which things are altered/deleted are all issues worthy of consideration for those relying on the digital archive.  One might need to screenshot (and print) while the getting is good.

Deseret News Changes LDS.org

(Above left: Screen Shots from the LDS Church News article, “20 Important Events in General Conference History,” originally published October 2, 2014 (top image), and edited October 13, 2014 (bottom image). Above right: Screen shot of the article as it appears on the church’s official website, lds.org, under the slightly different title, “20 Memorable Events in General Conference History.” At the time of writing, the original wording (“the general women’s meeting was the first session of the semiannual general conference”) remains.)

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Cultural History Current Events Digital Humanities Gender Methodology, Academic Issues Miscellaneous Women's History


Comments

  1. Excellent, Kris. Thank you for these important thoughts.

    Comment by Christopher — October 14, 2014 @ 2:21 pm

  2. In a day of Facebook and wikipedia edit tools as well as Google caches and wayback machine that shows the changes and when they were made, the online generation is going to be most suspicious of this type of cooperate scrubbing.

    Comment by EmJen — October 14, 2014 @ 2:36 pm

  3. Thanks, Kris. This has important implications, as you say, for all researchers, not just Mormons. I wonder how archives will adjust to this (if they will). Digital archives full of screenshots seems impractical, but could be invaluable.

    Comment by J Stuart — October 14, 2014 @ 2:36 pm

  4. Thanks for this, Kris. This is such a fascinating topic. My observations go even more generally to LDS’s attitudes toward the written text. Mormons have a strong tradition of the written word (at least that’s what we’ve apparently convinced ourselves of, so I’m sticking to it for this comment’s sake). We actually have an interesting history of authoritative texts being changed without church members generally being aware of it (I’m thinking of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Journal of Discourses, and to a differing, though just as important degree, the History of the Church). One could argue that what was recently done is simply carrying on that rich tradition. But, as your post so nicely points out, the digital age has foregrounded that practice, raising all sorts of questions with people. It will be interesting to see what will change and what will remain the same as we increasingly rely more and more on digital (and thereby potentially non-static) texts.

    Comment by Robin — October 14, 2014 @ 2:43 pm

  5. J Stuart: “I wonder how archives will adjust to this (if they will).”

    BYU has done a lot of thinking and collecting of Mormon culture as it has been expressed online. If it survives the many inevitable hardware and software changes over the next generations, it will be an invaluable collection.

    Comment by Robin — October 14, 2014 @ 2:45 pm

  6. Thanks, Kris.

    Comment by Saskia — October 14, 2014 @ 2:46 pm

  7. This is such an interesting action by the Church. Thank you for your insights.

    The internet provides a catch-22 when it comes to historians. It provides amazing flexibility in its use and reuse. It allows historians to view a document from various angles and with various mediums. However, as this event highlights, with that flexibility comes the lack of durability. The record of change for the web is lacking but not non-existent.

    One great resources is the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine (https://archive.org/web/) which allows a glimpse websites of times past. A great tool for research while still being limited.

    Comment by Jordan Bratt — October 14, 2014 @ 3:18 pm

  8. Thanks for all the comments.

    Robin, I appreciate you giving more historical context to the changes in authoritative texts. I think one of the interesting aspects of this particular change is the timing of the changes given the current climate on gender issues,the number of players involved as well as the ability to watch the changes happening, sometimes within hours. It is also interesting to note, that the prayer which was changed, was recorded, although not written down while President Uchtdorf’s talk, which is a text, has not been changed (although some have made the argument that his remarks could be interpreted in a variety of ways).

    Comment by kris — October 14, 2014 @ 3:20 pm

  9. This is really important, Kris. I’d be interested in your and others’ thoughts regarding the recent “right to be forgotten” ruling in Spain but, I believe, affecting much of Europe.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — October 14, 2014 @ 4:46 pm

  10. Sigh. So apt. Who knew that part of our professional training as historians has to be generating our own (silo’d) archives of stuff we are trying to grab off the internet before it disappears? Sometimes I think the best professional development for historians should be getting trained as hackers, or getting certified in digital forensics, or something. Great post, Kris. And yes, rather discouraging to see this unfolding in real time. THIS IS NOT A TEST, people.

    Comment by Tona H — October 15, 2014 @ 6:10 am

  11. Good work, Kris.

    Comment by janiecej — October 15, 2014 @ 9:21 am

  12. Gary, I think you raise an interesting point about the future impact of “the right to be forgotten” legislation on historical research. It will be interesting to see how such rulings impact the ability to do research.

    Comment by kris — October 15, 2014 @ 2:10 pm

  13. …And… 10/30/14 we’re back again to its being the first session of General Conference (yay!). Digital whiplash anyone?

    Comment by Tona H — October 30, 2014 @ 7:57 pm


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