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Meeting has been largely framed as a feminist issue, it also raises questions for researchers in tracing changes to historical documents and other sources as well as how ideas get lodged in the imaginations of religious believers.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.
(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.)