Over the past week, four contributors to the Juvenile Instructor have toured, given tours, researched in, peered through the windows of, and otherwise participated in the opening of the new LDS Church History Library and Archives. Their experiences, ruminations, and ponderables are below.
Jared, the researcher: opening day
As prelude, see my notes from the Church History Library Dedication on Saturday, June 20, 2009.
I arrived at the Library Monday morning (June 22, 2009) just a few minutes before 9 a.m. as the front doors opened. Predictably, Ardis Parshall was first in line. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich was second to enter the building. I was third. There we waited a few minutes at the security desk in the lobby waiting for the doors to the library itself to open. I took out my driver’s license expecting to have it scanned for the printout badge, which was the standard procedure at the East Wing. But that is thankfully no longer necessary. The guard said that it would no longer be necessary to check in with security to enter, but that we could just walk in. As the doors to the library proper opened, Ardis edged toward them, and I followed as Dr. Ulrich lingered a moment at the desk. Thus, I became the second patron to enter the library proper. We were greeted by cameras and smiling faces. I was taken slightly off guard for a moment, assaulted from all sides by newness and space.
There are a lot more computer stations than before, each with revamped web sites and resources. Instead of having to search multiple catalogs (Archives, Library, Museum) for material, all are integrated for maximum findability. Instead of filling out a call slip as before, you now order materials (now called “Secure Stack” rather than “Closed Stack” materials) via computer. You can also request access to restricted materials directly on the computer rather than filling out a form (that I know of, restriction criteria and wait times for approval have not changed). One thing to be aware of is that the amount of time involved in requesting and receiving Secure Stack materials has increased. Instead of expecting an approximately 15 minute wait, I was told that it takes from 30 minutes to 1 hour to receive the materials requested, depending on when they are requested. As soon as I heard that piece of news, I rushed to a computer and fired off a few requests that I had already planned on. In the mean time I continued to wander around. Behind the reception desk is a room with copy machines (5 cents/copy). These machines will also scan the copy to your flash drive, which is free. In the next room are microfilm scanners for use with the public microfilm collections of Mormon and Utah. The open stacks overflow with periodicals and reference books as before. There are lockers, and instead of keys, you punch in your own four digit combination to open and close the locker (this must be reset every time it is unlocked). Never fear if you forget your combination, the staff have master keys.
At about 9:30, after stashing my stuff, I went to the reading room to see if my hasty effort to call material had paid off. Entering the reading room (the only place Secure Stack materials can be examined) you are asked to sign in and you are asked here for your license, which the staff holds on to as you view your requested material. The reading room is a great deal larger than the old reading room and much lighter. Taking my microfilm to the readers, I was thrilled to find only a few of the “dinosaur” machines that populated the old East Wing reading room. Instead, more prominent are electronic viewers, the same as those used in the Family History/Religion section of the BYU Library. These machines work much much better than the old hand cranked readers and come chock full of features that enlarge, lighten, sharpen, tilt and can select portions of the microfilm image for enhancement and ease in reading. Most groundbreaking, perhaps, is that one of these readers is enabled for microfilm scanning/copying. I was informed that many MS (call number prefix designating a manuscript–correspondence, diaries, etc) materials are approved for scanning (or printing) on this machine (and I also heard that another one of these viewers may be enabled for scanning/printing soon). All of these technical changes along with an aesthetically and intellectually pleasing atmosphere come together to create an inviting environment for research and study. This all bodes well for the continued progress of Mormon History.
Ben, the Summer Fellow: private tour with BYU’s Joseph Smith Summer Seminar
The structure is literally intimidating. Walking into the main entry, I felt engulfed by the height of the ceiling and the width of the walls—a huge improvement from the “snug” atmosphere of the east wing of the Church Office Building. In fact, the move from the past library to the present felt like a leap of three generations—everything is bigger in size, improved in equality, and advanced in technology. The old archives had two computers for the longest time (before expanding last summer), but now the main library area houses at least twenty. Many of the most popular collections (Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, etc.), can be accessed with just a few clicks of the mouse on any of the desktops. The archive’s catalogue is leagues better than what they used to have—more user-friendly in nature, and more comprehensive in access.
The effort put into the library is a testament to the importance the current leaders of the Church place on history preservation. Rick Turley, who led us through on our tour, explained the lengths they took to make sure the facility was state-of-the-art, and the best in its field. He told us the extensive research they did in preparation, visiting libraries and archives across the nation and not only asking them what they did right, but what they wished they would have done differently. They took pains to make sure it was the most “green” building the Church had produced, doing all that is necessary to be labeled an environmentally friendly structure. Their twelve vaults, each of massive size, are kept at the perfect temperature and humidity to make the documents last as long as possible (ten rooms are kept at fifty five degrees, two at negative four). The building is built so secure that even if a sizable earthquake came through, the library would largely not be affected (in fact, it would become the Church Headquarters if substantial damage were done to the COB). Rick Turley mentioned that it is very possible the Church went over-budget in building the library—a fact, if true, also lends to their vision of its importance.
More exciting for me was the presence of computers with microfilm scanners in the reading room. I have spent a decent chunk of my free time in the last two years slowly transcribing a lot of my ancestor’s journals and correspondence, a task that would have taken me many more years if kept at its present rate. However, after approving it through the librarians, I was able to stick my thumb drive into the computer, scan the entire papers collection of my g-g-g-g-grandfather, and now they are all securely saved on my laptop waiting for the mythical free time down the road when I can afford to look at them in detail. Realistically, that technology (and the archive’s openness and trust), allowed me to do in two hours what would have otherwise taken me over a hundred. Now, this won’t be the case for all documents (several of my friends didn’t get approval for scanning what they hoped for), but it could serve as a blessing for those of you who just want ancestral documents. (Plus, looking at the microfilm on a computer screen, where you can adjust brightness, color, and focus, is far better than those bulky microfilm machines that used to be the only option.)
Most importantly, the library provided a wonderful environment to study. The furniture, art, colors, and overall spaciousness of the main patron area generally made me excited about learning. A wonderful step for the Church, and a wonderful blessing for us historians.
Elizabeth, the insider: sometime host of the Joseph Smith Papers section of the public tour
As I have gone to work at the Church History Library over the past couple of weeks, I have watched streams of people troop in and out of the beautiful new building and walk the halls on self-guided tours. Given the significance of this new edifice, evidenced by its mere presence and the accompanying structural changes within the Church History Department, I have been tickled (perhaps more than I should) that no one bothered to get together a protest, after the fashion of a good old General Conference row. Such an oversight could betray the fact that protests are geared toward large crowds of Mormons for shock value and media attention; or it could betray a fundamental misunderstanding of Mormons and their history, which pervades every aspect of Mormonism and comprises a key methodology for discovering truth among laypeople and academics alike. Protest or no, the new CHL demonstrates that Mormons are in no danger of losing their identity as a record-keeping people. In fact, it indicates a strengthening of this identity, as the church also looks to the future of Mormon history as a worldwide endeavor.
Aside from touring the facility myself, I also acted as a tour guide for several hours. My station was explaining the Joseph Smith Papers Project. I offered brief summaries of the project next to synoptic cardboard displays and galleys of the upcoming volume, Revelations 1. I became a reader of people: some were fairly blasé; some seemed to be experts; others were hearing the spiel for the first time; a good deal of them had seen at least a little of the KJZZ documentary series on the project. I was most thrilled by the children and teenagers who came by. Several of these kids were transfixed, their minds on fire. They had never seen the Doctrine and Covenants presented in such a way before, with artfully color-coded notation of every textual redaction. This made me really excited for upcoming generations of Mormons who will have access to primary sources like never before. Many of the older adults who stopped by expressed their chagrin at not being alive for the project’s completion. I felt grateful to be part of the generation of Mormon historians who will likely see the end of the project and the volumes’ coming of age; I realized that I am a beneficiary of the lifeworks of JSPP historians and staff in unprecedented ways.
This was a reverential moment for me and reinforced the idea that the new CHL is not only a repository for the past history of the church but a place where history will be created for years to come. It is a building of collected lived history as well as a site of living history. The building feature that I find most emblematic of this dynamic relationship between past, present, and future is, oddly enough, the carpeting throughout the first-floor stacks and reading room. The carpet, a beautiful maroon, yellow, and white imitation of book marbling, creates the effect for patrons of being within a giant history book, of not simply encountering the histories of others but of being a co-creator with historians past and of being living links to historians of the future.
matt b, outsider and plebian: the public tour
All these ruminations crystallized some impressions I had upon my recent wander through the library – the place is proud, and quite justifiably so, of its excellence at the arts of archival work, restoration, and preservation. I admired the intimidating and colorful temperature gauges set to “55;” I watched a guy use tweezers and stain to magically restore an old photograph, and gazed upon many cameras, pans of smelly chemicals, and file boxes. I walked past reams of desks devoted to those who stitch bindings and mend pages. Much of the movie shown on the tour is composed of footage of serious looking people with conservative haircuts gently filing, dusting, and cataloging. The halls were appropriately somber, decorated with small plaques that bore impressive numbers about acres of storage and rows of shelves and so forth. This is a lot of work.
It’s an impressive, and even (to continue with the adjectives starting with ‘i’) inspiring place, even setting the nearly clinical precision of these upper floors aside. The lobby is gorgeous, the reading room luxurious. The facilities are much more patron friendly than the old, somewhat cramped library, with its seemingly random scattering of computers and a reading room for secure materials that reminded me in illumination and furnishing of the fort I built under my parents’ stairs in grade school.
All of this is characteristic of many conservative churches, who are often on the cutting edge of relevant technology, but it’s also, very – even endearingly – Mormon; this library was born of the same inclination toward technical mastery that sends so many young Mormons to medical school, to the law, to the FBI and other such high-competency professions. It’s history as a skill, even a trade.
The other thing that struck me about the tour was its strong bent toward personal history. The film, the relics, were not set in the sort of broader narratives and theories which professional historians spend so much time on; rather, they were presented as a kaleidoscope of individuals, a scattered network of stories, a genealogy of faith with relevance primarily to one’s own family and religious experience. The sort of history this encourages interests me; on the one hand, it’s individualized and perhaps fragmented; on the other, it is an interesting alternative to the heroic narrative of prophets and apostles that most lay Mormons know.
On both these counts, one might get the impression that this new library might seem a slightly foreign place to professional historians, interested in history as the art of narrativemaking, not science or genealogy. The tour particularly was not intended to cater to such folk. Nor, however, should it have been. And indeed, as historic preservation and microhistory (like family history, for instance) continue to gain ground in the academy, perhaps it will turn out that the new Church History Library is actually on the cutting edge.