This summer I’ve been rewriting my manuscript on Mormon liturgy and cosmology, and I have thought many times how much more difficult it would have been without the extraordinary increase in documents accessibility over the last decade. I live a thousand miles away from Salt Lake City, research mostly in the evening, and only am on-site at the various archives for short moments. I know there were some heady times in the LDS Church archives decades ago (without which we could not do what we do now, even), but I think it is currently the best time to be researching Mormon history. Camelot Shmamelot.
In this post I thought I would share some pointers as a guide for those interested in similar work. This post is focusing on the LDS Church History Library (CHL), and includes some recent correspondence I have had with Keith Erekson, director of the CHL. Also, please note that the CHL will be closed to the public for renovations from October 10, 2016 to February 21, 2017.
First, check out J. Stuart’s CHL research guide from last year.
Now, by way of context, less than ten years ago, there was no public catalog for the CHL. You had to physically be present to evaluate the holdings. Over the years there have been some significant developments, including the release of the internet catalog and the integration of digital content. The amount of material that has been digitized is extraordinary, with tens of thousands of collections available, and more released weekly. There is a lot to talk about and how collections are treated by the CHL is sometimes complicated.
While most materials in the catalog are open to public access, it doesn’t take long trolling through the catalog to find materials that are “closed to research” or restricted. That being said, there are many collections that were once restricted, but are now not only open, but are available online. For example, the bulk of Brigham Young’s Office Files (CR 1234 1), the First Presidency (John Taylor) correspondence 1877-1887 (CR 1 180), and the James E. Talmage Collection (MS 1232) are now accessible online. These are only a few of the extraordinary troves of documents that were completely inaccessible just years ago. The vast majority of items I use in my manuscript are currently open to researchers and frequently they are available digitally. That I was able to access them from home at my convenience made my project possible.
The process of making so many documents available is not without its hiccups. For example, over a decade ago, the History Department published a massive DVD set of digitally imaged manuscript collections. BYU had put this collection available behind the university firewall for student and professor access. Then with the release of the new CHL catalog in 2011, the images were made available on the Catalog web page. In subsequent years this content has been integrated into the catalog like other digital content. However, some of the collections, and some of the folders within the collections were not ported over (or were categorized as “closed to research”). When asked about this Keith responded helpfully:
The entire DVD collection is supposed to be in the public catalog. If something is not there, please click on the “Ask Us” button to let us know. The ecosystem of products that maintains the catalog is actually quite complex and each time a component is updated, patched, or fixed unintended consequences can occur. We have millions of images attached to thousands of collections, so we are always monitoring. And we always welcome notice from users when things that should appear don’t appear.
As for the categorization “Closed to Research,” I’d ask users to check one thing first. When we digitize items, we post the digital content online and then close access to the physical item (to reduce wear, improve preservation, etc.). So, if you see “Closed to Research” look also for the link to “View digital object.” That means the digital asset is open and the physical item is closed. Click the “view” link and enjoy.
Requests to access genuinely restricted items are reviewed on a case by case basis. There is a formal request procedure, and a team of CHL professionals that review requests. Generally speaking, requests for fishing are not granted, but in my experience the CHL is more willing to work with you for specific items relating to specific projects. This is especially the case if you have transcripts of the items from other sources that you want to verify. Also, sometimes they just say no.
This summer the History Department released an updated access policy. For years the acronym SPC (Sacred, Private, and Confidential) has been the public reasoning for restricting access. Most researchers can understand the institutional reasons for such restrictions, and are likely sympathetic. That details regarding the temple liturgy would not be publicly accessible makes sense. The new policy highlights several other reasons beyond SPC. For example, when I asked Keith why items such as general church handbooks and general circular letters were currently restricted, he noted that these items had been deemed restricted by the creator, one of the new categories of restriction in the new policy. In this case the creator—the corporate church—does not want public access to these documents, and wishes to ensure current leaders only use the most recent instruction. My sense is that such restrictions make the entire process of restriction look somewhat arbitrary.
Back to digitization. While the CHL is constantly digitizing materials, if there is something of interest that you would like to have available, one can request the digitization of a collection by clicking on the “Suggest Digitization” or “Ask Us” buttons in the catalog. Upon approval and execution, the document will be made available through the catalog. This may be particularly useful if you were planning on doing research this fall. Also, scans of microfilm can be made on a case by case basis in the CHL reading room using the microfilm scanners. These machines are locked down, but can be unlocked by the staff upon document approval. In my experience both of these processes have been pretty swift and have allowed me to maximize the efficiency of my onsite research.
Sometimes requests for digitization or copying are denied on basis of copyright. This is an area where I don’t have much background, and there has been some written on the topic in relation to the DVD set mentioned above. Keith clarified that the CHL follows “U.S. and International copyright law. Generally, that means that items published before 1923 are in the public domain, but individual exceptions may apply. The most common is when an estate claims literary rights. The digitization and posting of copyrighted material by an institution is viewed under the law as an infringement on copyright.”
Over the years I’ve noted that some items which I saw in the on-site-only catalog over a decade ago and some items reference by other scholars don’t appear on the current catalog and that the staff at the CHL have had catalog tools not accessible to CHL patrons. I asked Keith about that and he noted that the CHL does maintain an internal catalog for non-public collection comprised of documents such as:
- patriarchal blessings
- recent corporate records
- materials that are in process, such as a newly acquired collection that is being cataloged or a large collection for which a detailed register is being prepared (but not yet complete).
- confidential institutional records, such as minutes or ordinance information
I’ve noticed a few other lacunae, but in many cases the CHL staff can use their tools help you if you are trying to track a reference down.
I know that things are always changing, so here are some things I would love to see in future iterations of the catalog:
- a live update mechanism for newly digitized material.
- functional rss feeds for search queries
- better search and search filtering
As I mentioned above, I don’t think that there is any better time to be working on Mormon history. I look forward to seeing the fruits of your labors.