The last few years have witnessed a dramatic explosion in the accessibility of Mormon history. Even five years ago, it was necessary to make expensive pilgrimages to Salt Lake City and other American archives to examine Mormonism’s founding documents—assuming that those documents were unrestricted and available for public consumption. During the last few years, the Church has proceeded to make high definition scans of Joseph Smith materials available on the Joseph Smith Papers website, numerous materials, pamphlets, and magazines available at the Internet Archive, and the catalog of most of its archival holdings available on the internet.
Today the Church released an updated version of the Church History Library Catalog with a new interface and additional features to facilitate historical research. As a part of the catalog, the Church has made digital scans of many collections available, eliminating the need for historians to make the trek to the Church History Library or to spend $1000.00 for access to the Selected Collections of the Archives of the Church (2002). Currently all of the images from the Selected Collections DVDs, including the Journal History of the Church up to about 1930, are available on the catalog. Accordingly, over 500,000 documents and images are presently available on the catalog. Additionally, the catalog includes opportunities for historians to request digitization of various collections (providing approval is granted). Although digitization will come with an attached cost, once completed, the digitized images will be made available to the whole Mormon history community, thus allowing patrons to build the body of digitized documents.
One very positive aspect of the catalog is the inclusion of a small amount of information for formerly unlisted collections like Heber J. Grant Collection (MS 1233) and the Records of the General Superintendency of the Religion Classes of the Church (CR 102 252)—though admittedly I may be the only person interested in that particular collection. Although the entry for the Grant Collection lacks a register and is very scanty in its description of the contents, the inclusion of formerly unlisted collections on the catalog is an important step forward in terms of historical openness, allowing historians at least the opportunity to make a more detailed petition for access to such sources. It should be noted that other collections like Spencer W. Kimball’s journals and the John A. Widtsoe Collection remain unlisted on the catalog. But given the issues of accessibility to the archives during the past, the limited extent of such exclusions is both astonishing and gratifying.
One rather perplexing aspect of the new interface is the lack of box and folder numbers corresponding with the scanned images. The images do contain reel numbers, and the box and folder numbers can be found in the registers of the larger collections, but the separate locations create needless steps for historians doing research in the collections. It also makes it more challenging for historians to quickly locate the desired items.
Despite these problems, the new catalog represents yet another important step forward in the field of Mormon history. In addition to assisting historians in their historical research, the new catalog is an important step towards creating a history that is equally accessible to Latter-day Saints who are far removed from the Wasatch Front. It is to be hoped that the website will ultimately include scans of documents detailing the history of Latter-day Saints in other nations and speak languages other than English.
While visits to the Church History Library will remain essential to in-depth Mormon history research, the new catalog facilitates historical research amongst non-Utah residents. Given the cost of digitization and the web design that went into this project, the new catalog represents a significant outlay of financial means on the part of the Church and is worthy of our commendation and gratitude.