Restriction-ism Unveiled!

By February 16, 2017

Today’s guest post comes from Keith Erekson. Keith is the Director of the Library division at the LDS Chruch History Library.

One of the most common tropes in Mormon literature asserts that Mormon practices are veiled in secrecy. In the realm of historical practice, the trope has been employed to describe the archival and historical collections of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, presently housed in the Church History Library in Salt Lake City. What lies in the vaults at the Church History Library? What is restricted, and why? Is it possible to use restricted items in your research? What restrictions influence the intellectual property request process? Are restrictions ever lifted?

On February 21, 2017, the public areas in the Church History Library building will re-open after four months of remodeling. While we are very excited about the new classroom and enhancements to the reading room, the occasion also seems to present an opportunity to “unveil” our process for making decisions about access to the Library’s collections. Like all institutional archives, we hold records that must be restricted for statutory, regulatory, contractual, and confidential reasons. Unlike most institutional archives, we have used modern technology to provide unprecedented access to the Library’s collections.

In 2011, the Library’s catalog went online and the following year we began digitizing our records in a systematic, large-scale way. Today there are more than 8.5 million images available in the catalog, 2.7 of which were digitized in 2015 (at a rate of 307 images every hour!). Many sources—such as the Joseph Smith Papers, Relief Society documents, and George Q. Cannon’s diaries—are being transcribed for full-text online searching. In 2015, we began a practice of redaction that now allows us to open thousands of previously restricted items. In the past, if a missionary diary contained the details of a disciplinary council on one page, the entire volume was restricted. Now, we digitize the volume, redact the name(s) of those involved, and release the entire volume (sans redaction) online. In 2015, more than 1,100 existing collections were opened for research. Three quarters of the Library’s holdings are open and available to research.

To put this recent work into context, I’ll share the considerations that influence an access decision, including types of materials in the Library, reasons for restricting access, levels of restriction, and delivery method. At the 2016 meeting of the Mormon History Association, I led a workshop on access restrictions at the Church History Library and this post summarizes that presentation.

  1. Types of Materials

The first important consideration for access is the type of material you are seeking. Different reasons for restriction devolve directly from the type of materials in our collections. The Church History Library actually blends three types of institutions under one roof—archives, special collections, and library.

An archives, like the National Archives, is the official final resting place for records produced by an institution during the course of its normal activities. In the Church’s context, for example, when the Church builds a temple, the natural work process produces a record of property purchase, architectural plans, photographs of construction, dedicatory services, media releases, and so on. Other examples include patriarchal blessings and records generated by local church units, such as membership records and ward leadership meeting minutes. As each of those items cease to be needed in day-to-day work, they may be transferred to the Library. Thus, archival collections are typically unique, unpublished, and may be created in many formats (handwriting, photo, electronic document, audio, visual, maps, etc.). Archival materials are assembled by the institution, kept onsite, and preserved for future use. Most government, educational, business, and religious institutions maintain archives. Because private institutions keep the records for their own use, they are often under no obligation to share. Many institutional archives are simply closed to external use—the case with the archives for Coca-Cola, Coach (leather goods), JP Morgan Chase, Motorola, or the Pampered Chef. Some may be accessed by permission of the archivist, general counsel, and/or public affairs (the case with Wells Fargo or Campbell Soup) or by application and letters of reference (Citigroup). At the ABC News archive, finished products are not accessible but b-roll footage may be purchased. Even in archives of government or public entities, records are subject to legal or internal restrictions.

To put the Church into historical context, access to the Church’s archival collections have changed over time. In the 1880s the collections were closed (like Coca-Cola), and by the 1950s research could occur by permission (like Wells Fargo). The Hofmann forgeries and bombings produced a general tightening of restrictions during the 1980s and 1990s, but we have become increasingly more open since the turn-of-the-century.

A special collections institution, such as the Huntington Library, proactively seeks special, rare, and valuable materials. Sometimes the materials were published and have become scarce over time, such as rare books, specialized pamphlets, or broadsides. Other special collections materials are unique, such as personal papers, correspondence, photographs, and other manuscripts. In the Church’s context, these materials include early diaries of Church members, correspondence, personal and family papers.

A library, such as the Library of Congress, collects books, printed materials, and AV materials. In many libraries, the materials are not unique, are mass-produced, may be checked out, taken home, worn out (and simply replaced later). In the Church’s context, these materials include newspapers, pamphlets, the books we purchase from university presses, the materials produced by Church Distribution, scholarly journals and magazines to which we maintain subscriptions.

To put the Church History Library into institutional context, the type of materials that we collect and hold represent a combination of the National Archives, the Huntington Library, and the Library of Congress (we have very little in common with a public library). Researchers often visit the University of Utah and then the Church History Library, and leave wondering why things are restricted without realizing that the Marriott Library is primarily a special collection (with a small university archives component)—this makes the comparison between them and us more like an apple and a fruit basket. You may be interested to know that the scale of our operations is also dramatically larger. According to Archives West, Utah State University holds approximately 900 collections and the University of Utah has 3,300. BYU’s special collections holds 15,000. By comparison, the Church History Library provides access to approximately 179,000 collections that are stored onsite, in the Granite Mountain Records Vault (microfilm, digital, and selected book, manuscript, and AV collections), and in approximately two dozen storage locations in countries around the world. In 2015 alone, our archivists and librarians processed 3,300 new archival and manuscript collections and 6,200 new printed and rare items.

  1. Reasons for Restriction

In the past, the staff of the Church History Library has talked about records that contain information deemed sacred, private, or confidential. As with other institutions, there are many reasons to restrict access to items and collections.

Some reasons are imposed by external statutory, regulatory, or contractual requirements. We are required by law to protect personal privacy, both in the specifics related to personal identity theft as well as more general respect for living persons. We follow laws created by the legal jurisdictions in which records are created (nations, states) that govern intellectual property, sharing across borders, or records known to be defamatory. Donors may also place restrictions on access as part of a signed donation agreement that becomes legally binding. My favorite example of this type of donor restriction occurred when Abraham Lincoln’s son donated his father’s personal papers to the Library of Congress but prohibited access until 21 years after the son’s death. Lincoln’s papers opened for research in 1949.

Other restrictions are derived from the physical or technical characteristics of the item in question—fragile physical condition, existence on an obsolete media form (very applicable to AV), high monetary value (we won’t send a million-dollar item into the reading room), the location where the item is stored (if it is offsite or in our cold storage vault it will not be available to view immediately).

As the institutional archive of the Church, we are obligated to restrict access to materials that are confidential. This includes records of Church disciplinary proceedings and priest-penitent communications with Church members as well as records that were created in a confidential setting and not intended for public distribution, such as meeting minutes, financial records, and the papers of Church leaders.

Other restrictions are defined by the Church History Department. We do not grant research access to items that are currently on exhibit, being digitized, or that have been acquired but not yet processed. Finally, some items are only temporarily in our custody, because they are on loan from another individual or institution (we had photographs of the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon in the Library while they were being prepared for publication in the Joseph Smith Papers but they were not available to researchers).

We have posted an explanation of these reasons for restrictions on the Library’s website at https://history.lds.org/article/access.

  1. Levels of Restriction

The Library assigns different levels of restriction—unrestricted, restricted, and highly restricted. The level is not categorical based on the reasons identified above, but is defined by assessing the mix of all the potential reasons. This is best illustrated by specific examples.

For example, we hold copies of patriarchal blessings. The primary reason for restricting access is that they contain sacred content. But they may also contain information about living persons (a mother’s maiden name, for example, rises to the level of personal identity protection because they are commonly used in security questions). Thus, to almost all requesters, official copies of patriarchal blessings are restricted—official copies enter our collection as the archival copy of work conducted by church officials. However, to the recipient, they are unrestricted (pending verification of the requester’s identity via an LDS Account). Recently, we have also begun to provide copies of blessings for direct-line ancestors and for deceased spouses and children. On the other hand, when individuals make a personal copy of their blessing, such as by writing it into their diary and then donating the diary to us, those copies are unrestricted (they came to us as personal manuscripts, not as official archival records). Some blessings, such as those of Joseph and Emma Smith, have been released for publication as part of the Joseph Smith Papers.

To take another example, materials created by General Authorities receive an initial designation as restricted because the day-to-day work of General Authorities routinely involves numerous sacred, private, or confidential matters. However, on a case-by-case basis we are beginning to change the designation and make some church president materials available. The Joseph Smith Papers are a prime example, so too is the journal of George Q. Cannon. Brigham Young’s office files are available digitally in our online catalog.

As a final example, consider records of disciplinary action. The official records created by priesthood leaders are highly restricted (they were produced in a confidential setting, and they were submitted to us for archiving through an official internal process). Personal manuscript records, such as the diary of a priesthood leader who commented about the process, are restricted (to protect confidentiality, for the legal protection given to priest-penitent communication, and the privacy of living persons may also apply). When a party to a disciplinary process shares his or her perspective publicly, such as in a newspaper or other publication (including in previous eras when the Church published a notice of the decision), the item is unrestricted.

  1. Delivery Method

The final consideration in making an access decision involves factors inherent in the delivery method. Our preferred method of delivery is full-text online – this protects the original item from physical handling and makes the item available to all. Redaction permits us to share items online that could not be shared physically. The most significant impediment to online delivery is intellectual property—rights related to copying, publishing, and earning income. For example, due to copyright restrictions, we cannot digitize and post an electronic copy of a newly published book by a university press, though you may visit our building and read that same book on site.

We can also provide access to items in our reading room, and sometimes donors will restrict access to the reading room. In recent years, we have developed an electronic reading room that we call Individual Temporary Access (ITA) to facilitate the fact that some researchers are unable to physically travel to Salt Lake City (the access is managed through an LDS Account for members or guests).

Lastly, in some instances in which a record is restricted, rather than redacting a small portion of an item, we can release a small excerpt. Or, when a researcher has a specific request, we can verify the information in a restricted record.

Unveiled!

Access designations of unrestricted, restricted, or highly restricted are the result of a decision-making process that considers material type, multiple external and internal reasons for protecting information and artifacts, and methods of potential delivery. I invite you to access our collections and services online at ChurchHistoryLibrary.org or in person in our newly remodeled reading room in Salt Lake City. Beginning February 21, 2017, we will be open every day at 10:00 a.m., closing most days at 5 p.m., except for 8 p.m. on Thursdays and 3 p.m. on Saturdays. Click the “Ask Us” button anywhere on our website or in our catalog for personalized help. We look forward to helping you in your research.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Keith, Thanks very much for this. It’s very helpful. One question I’ve wondered about: Is there any attempt to place a time limit on some restricted materials? Say, 75 years for some institutional records (I’m thinking financial, for example)?

    Comment by Gary Bergera — February 16, 2017 @ 8:37 am

  2. Great question, Gary. We are looking for ways to apply a moving time limit to our collections–temple architectural drawings from the 19th century have been opened, information related to the privacy of living persons can be released at 30, 50, or 110 years (depending on the type of information), and the missionary database was built with that provision. At the present time, financial information does not have a time-based release schedule.

    I’ll just add here my thanks to JI for publishing this post. I look forward to responding to questions in the comments.

    Comment by Keith — February 16, 2017 @ 9:34 am

  3. Keith, I have a couple questions/comments.

    1) Piggybacking on Gary’s comment above, it seems reasonable to have time limits on confidentiality (barring legal obligations to the contrary). For example, life + 50 or even 70 years for an individual’s papers (by which time all children and contemporaries would have passed along). Dead people don’t need much privacy after the potentially tender feelings of their friends and family have also passed on. Likewise, for general church records 100 years would be very reasonable – by that time the actors have passed on, and to the extent any decisions or processes draw negative attention we would have had 100 years of experience to figure out the merits of the decision and make any needed corrections. Unnecessarily dragging out confidentiality risks the appearance of secrecy you mention.

    2) Except for extremely limited secrecy by covenant, why would any materials be restricted due to being sacred beyond ordinary privacy concerns? The church is built upon, and fortified by, sacred experiences. Keeping sacred things secret seems to undermine the church’s purpose which is, at least in part, to build faith.

    I know you have considered these matters and am curious to know how your team came to the conclusions it did.

    Comment by Craig M. — February 16, 2017 @ 9:51 am

  4. Great question, Craig. We agree (as already noted above) that there are reasonable time limits in many instances and we implement those when we can. Restrictions based on privacy law, you rightly note, do expire at death, or after death, or as some term after birth (depending on the country we’re talking about . . . and remember, we administer a collection stored in dozens of countries and accessible worldwide through our catalog).

    Beyond privacy and sacredness, there are reasons to keep materials confidential for a longer time period. In terms of priest-penitent information, the parishioner should rightly expect for those communications to remain confidential. From a doctrinal standpoint, when the promise of the formal repentance process is that the Lord will remember sins no more, then it is not our prerogative to post a record publicly.

    Further, like all other intuitions, we maintain information about many current activities confidential. No one expects an institution to announce a purchase before the deal is signed or to release information about a job offer before the candidate has accepted. Translating that principle to church activities, the Church, like many institutions, has a very long “active memory.” Committees that have met for decades should be able to consult past minutes go guide present action. Past decisions and considerations about missionary work or temple work provide important context to today’s decision-making. This applies, as we explain on the website to “Records produced in the course of Church business that takes place in non-public settings. Confidential records are primarily found in official Church records and in privately created papers of General Authorities, Church officers, Church employees, ecclesiastical leaders, clerks, and others holding positions of trust” (https://history.lds.org/article/access).

    Comment by Keith — February 16, 2017 @ 1:48 pm

  5. Keith, first off, thank you for the diligent work that the entire staff and institution has done to preserve and make accessible the materials at the CHL. I can say without reservation that the work that I have done in the last couple years would have simply not been possible otherwise. I’ve been consistently surprised and pleased with the new items that have been digitized and made available.

    I think everyone reasonable person will have an opinion about what should or shouldn’t be restricted, and you are consequently in an un yieldingly difficult spot. I think the biggest challenge is communication, as institutions are natively distrusted (especially if there is a history of secrecy). This, coupled with high profile items, such as access to the Clayton diaries, make the CHL powers that be seem , in the facile analysis, at best capricious or inconsistent. Ultimately it is an issue of public relations and brand management as much as an issue of archival technique. I view posts such as this a very positive step towards transparency.

    I’m particularly interested in collections of materials such as circular letters, handbooks, and the correspondence collections, and hope that they are being considered for open access.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 16, 2017 @ 2:21 pm

  6. Keith, I’d like to build briefly on J. Stapley’s comments. I’ve spent almost 40 years off and on researching in the Church Archives. I’ve seen and experienced a variety of approaches to questions of accessibility. For me, one of the most frustrating things has been a sometimes inconsistent application of whatever policies prevail at the time. It’s hard to believe the playing field is level when one doesn’t understand or even know all the rules. I know there have been and continue to be exceptions sometimes granted to the “private, sacred, confidential” categories of restrictions. And I’m grateful there have been/are (as I believe I’ve occasionally benefited from such exceptions). So at some point, I think it would be helpful if researchers knew that, despite the restrictions, they’re welcome to plead their cases and then see what happens. Sometimes the answer is yes.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — February 16, 2017 @ 4:06 pm

  7. Thank you for this explanation. I was disappointed to miss your presentation at MHA, so it’s good to have a summary here.

    As J. mentioned, the digitization being done by the Library makes it possible for researchers from out of the area to do work that was barely possible even just a few years ago, and when it was possible, involved expensive travel. It’s still a novelty to click over to the catalog and read through Brigham Young correspondence, or other materials, including another huge collection that was just digitized. Magnificent source material.

    Since my work on the African American slaves in Utah Territory often depends on a very occasional mention here and there in a variety of records, I appreciate searchable databases including the GQC diaries (one mention of one of the slaves) and Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel (many references to many of them) as well as Early Mormon Missionaries for information on missionaries to the Southern States and elsewhere. I appreciate the dedicated service and responsive and caring nature of those running the databases.

    So, no questions today, just kudos for all the digitization and database development.

    Comment by Amy T — February 16, 2017 @ 4:08 pm

  8. Thank you for this excellent explanation. As a historian-in-training who does early 20th century intellectual history, it’s frustrating to be limited to published statements, even if there is some rationale for those limitations.

    BTW, compliments also on your February Ensign article. I was so pleased I blogged about it. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/benjaminthescribe/2017/02/complexities-history-ensign/

    Comment by Ben S — February 16, 2017 @ 4:40 pm

  9. Jonathan (#5), we are so glad that you are finding the digitization program helpful! And, I am always happy to talk about access and our collections—whether at MHA or here or in some other venue—so hopefully we can make sincere progress on the question of transparency.
    You name an item and some collections that illustrate, I think, the importance of seeing the different paradigms at work in our holdings. If we were just a special collections, then we would seek out and purchase items and, having purchased them, simply share them with researchers (I say “simply,” though that is an over simplification because some special collections, like the Huntington Library, open their collections to researchers, but they limit which researchers can come into the facility. Nevertheless, the point holds that the institution shares at its own discretion).
    In an archive, however, the materials flow in through different channels than purchasing and those channels bring different responsibilities for us. I’ll make a distinction that is important to us (in the CHL), but may not seem important to outsiders at first—while we are owned are operated by the Church we are not “the Church.” What I mean is that all of the departments of the Church (and many local church buildings) have records in their possession that we in the CHL do not administer. Departments create and use records every day. They keep the records in their own storage systems (a shared drive or a file drawer) for however long they need or want or remember them. At some point, the department will transfer the records to us, but in that transfer process our relationship to the records can vary.
    Now, getting specific to the two records you mention. The Clayton diaries have not been transferred to the CHL; they remain in the custody of the First Presidency, and have been loaned to us for use in the Joseph Smith Papers project. So, the root answer behind a request for the Clayton diaries is that we do not own or manage them, and are not at liberty to grant access. The circular letters and handbooks illustrate another way that archival materials that have been transferred still retain a relationship to the record creators/originators. In this case, those responsible for circulating instructions to local ecclesiastical leaders have determined that their top priority in a global church in the Information Age is to ensure that accurate and current information is readily available to the thousands of local leaders who need to carry out the work of the Church and don’t have time to wade through a pile of past communications in order to find out the current program (not everyone enjoys the work that we historians love). So, while we preserve past communications, we do not share them because of the role that current information plays in the current work of official communications. In the professional context, this is similar to the National Archives, for example, which holds and preserves records that are “classified” by originating departments–they respect those classifications until the originating department changes its classification.

    Comment by Keith — February 16, 2017 @ 8:32 pm

  10. Gary (#6), I agree that inconsistency is frustrating and we are conscientiously striving toward a practice equity—if something is open to one it is open to all. I hope we’re getting better.

    And I will endorse your point that “if researchers knew that, despite the restrictions, they’re welcome to plead their cases and then see what happens. Sometimes the answer is yes.” As noted in the blog post, one of the exciting reasons that the answer can change today is our ability to redact. A diary that once sat on a restricted shelf because one or two pages contained something that needs to remain confidential may now be redacted and all of the other pages but those two become available (online).

    So, yes, please ask. We have placed “Ask Us” buttons throughout the catalog and our websites. We look forward to hearing from you.

    Comment by Keith — February 16, 2017 @ 8:40 pm

  11. Amy T (#7), thanks for the compliment! We’re working on other database ideas, so stay tuned.

    Ben S (#8), welcome to the profession and best wishes with your training! Thanks for the head’s up on your blog post. I enjoyed reading it.

    Comment by Keith — February 16, 2017 @ 8:42 pm

  12. Keith, I appreciate this outreach. I use the archives frequently and I love hearing about progress in digitization. My projects typically involve documents and while digital facsimiles are very useful for content, they don’t convey tactile and production data, etc. I’ve really appreciated that the library has been generous in allowing access to physical documents. Has the standard for allowing access to originals changed since digitization has accelerated? And a shout out to the archivists, librarians, and curators who have been so helpful online.

    Comment by WVS — February 17, 2017 @ 12:52 am

  13. WVS (#12), thanks for the shout out to our dedicated staff. We appreciate it. Our goals in digitization are two-fold: 1) to provide greater access through online availability and 2) to protect original records from the inevitable wear that comes through handling. That being said, there is, as you note, much to be learned from examining the original. So, after studying the electronic copy, just ask us about the original and we’ll see what we can do.

    Comment by Keith — February 17, 2017 @ 6:47 am

  14. Keith, This is very helpful. Thank you for providing such a well-thought-out and thorough description of the process.

    Comment by Heather S — February 17, 2017 @ 1:26 pm

  15. Keith, thanks for sharing and answering questions. It helps to have a better understanding about the restriction process. I will just say that when I have asked, I have been given permission to view on an occasion or two records that were restricted because they included some financial and excommunications records. When I explained what I was looking for (a specific quote in a specific time period from Brigham Young), and agreed to respect the confidentiality of those things, i was allowed to view the original which had not yet been digitized and redacted. The staff has generally been very helpful. I am anxious for the reopening, and meanwhile have continued to use the digitized material.

    Comment by kevinf — February 19, 2017 @ 10:08 pm

  16. Heather S (#14) and Kevinf (#15), you’re welcome!

    Comment by Keith — February 21, 2017 @ 8:55 pm


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