Archival research is sometimes compared to the effort of putting together a jigsaw puzzle—a puzzle where you have to find the pieces, you have no photo reference of the actual puzzle, and there are zero edge pieces and certainly no corner pieces. There are obviously parts of the comparison that don’t work, but it is apt for those needing a crash course in archival understanding.
I spend my fair share of time in an archives (it helps to be employed in one). I have a master’s degree in library science with an archival concentration and I just finished a dissertation on the history of the nineteenth-century archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In other words, I spend a lot of time thinking about archives and their creation and use by today’s scholars. I jokingly tell people that I’m more comfortable with dead people and their records than I am with living people (the joke, of course, is that I’m not joking).
I always struggle explaining why I find archival research so important for my own research interests. To me, it is just so obvious. One should immerse oneself in the records you plan to draw upon. There are so many non-textual elements that influence how a source is read—elements that jump out at you in a reading room. Of course, I skew just a bit (or a lot) towards the materiality of texts and how they were used by past generations. Those looking for ideas or stories or statements of facts might be fine with scans, photographs, or even typescripts of documents. For a good percentage of the primary sources I cite, I also make do with a proxy. But for my scholarly interests (materiality of textual cultures), I am driven to sit with the originals.
I notice random marks on documents. And usually, I stop to think about what they mean.
Last year my co-editor Brian Hauglid and I finally finished work on the fourth volume in the Joseph Smith Papers’ Revelations and Translations series: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts. Despite extensive research and effort, each volume of the Joseph Smith Papers contains many unanswered questions, and this volume was no different. One can spend years with manuscripts and still have details unknown: puzzling events, unidentified historical actors, and sometimes, a tiny, red-penciled “x”.
The Book of Abraham is extant in three Kirtland-era manuscripts. The first two, created simultaneously, were in church custody throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The third, labeled in the Joseph Smith Papers volume as Book of Abraham Manuscript—C, was donated to the church in the 1930s by Wilford C. Wood, a collector of documents, artifacts, and property significant to the church’s past.
At the top of the first page of this third Book of Abraham manuscript is a small pinkish “x”. (For those interested in following along, please see the image here). The purpose of this mark, written in the margin with an obvious original purpose, was one of my unanswered questions. There are few people who notice these small marks in manuscripts, fewer who take a second look, and even fewer who obsess over them to the point that they write entire blog posts about them. But because I’m one who obsesses over marks, I’m also interested in exploring their implications.
I would certainly not classify this particular mark as stray (stray marks are relatively common in nineteenth-century manuscripts where, as only one example, quill nibs break and ink accidentally marks up the page). An “x” is a very deliberate symbol with a purpose for the individual who wrote it. After verifying the transcription of this document, I ultimately decided to not speculate about the mark, simply concluding that “this pink-colored ‘x’ is of unknown origin.” (p. 242n160). This simple statement, however, does not adequately convey the hours I spent thinking about this mark. We, of course, can’t write 1,500-word blog posts about every mark that catches our eye.
So you could imagine my excitement when I recently discovered when and by whom the mark was created. I was looking through the Wilford C. Wood papers for provenance information for a different document and began reading a report he wrote in 1937 regarding material he acquired from the Bidamon family. Charles E. Bidamon, a son of Lewis Bidamon who had married Emma Smith following the death of Joseph Smith, had written to Wood informing him of historic church records in his possession. On his next trip east, Wood made a side-trip to Illinois. He reported that he spent “two hours looking” at the manuscripts Charles E. Bidamon possessed. One of these items was “the manuscript of the Pearl of Great Price.” He wasn’t surprised to find it as Bidamon had previously mentioned it being among the papers he owned. According to Wood, “I compared [the manuscript in Bidamon’s possession] with the one Pres. McKay gave me and found them to be the same.” I can easily imagine the excitement Wood must have felt in seeing this document. Here was another early copy of the Book of Abraham and Wood was eager to acquire it. So what did he do? He “placed a red cross on the page so I would know. Did not say anything about it while there.”
We now know the origin of this “little red cross.” Case closed.
But the puzzle is not complete, and we almost seem to have more pieces than necessary to assemble it. For example, to Wood, the “x” appears to have been a covert way of marking a manuscript of significance—perhaps a quick, ready reference for future acquisition. Perhaps it signified that he had completed a comparison of the manuscript with another already in his possession. Perhaps it was a mark made more out of excitement at seeing the document. At the end of his treasure hunt, he ensured there was an “x” to mark the spot. Although we aren’t sure about his motives, we still know that he marked the page. Wood’s passion for history drove him to purchase pieces of the past in order to share in the joys of the gospel. In this instance, he literally left his mark on history by making the “little red” x on the manuscript. This mark is visible to all who encounter the document.
But perhaps I’ve speculated too much. What do we, in fact, know for sure? Wood’s statement is fairly vague as to motivation. We know the when and the individual, but do we know the why of this small mark? In fact, can we be sure that the “little red cross” is the same mark as the “pink-colored ‘x’…of unknown origin?” There is little absolute certainty in historical research. Certitude collapses if everything is open for debate. Questions found in archival records are different than questioning archival records—to know the difference is, in fact, the “picture” found on the box of the archival research puzzle. This is one reason why I’ve spent so much time thinking about the x. The mark Wood made in the summer of 1937 reminds me that manuscripts, like the historical events they document, contain any number of questions about their creation, use, and interpretation. Some of those questions can be answered, but many of them will not be. Although I don’t question the conclusion that the “x” is the same mark spoken of by Wood, I still wonder why Wood created the “x”.
There are an infinite number of ways in which records from the past have been interpreted. Those interpretations accumulate and grow like a multi-layered skin of an onion. So often archival research demands that individuals peel back those interpretive layers to get to the heart of the document itself. Grounding one’s self in the documents offers one way to stick to the fundamentals of the source material. But, ironically, that tethering to the documents also reminds me of the importance of scholarly humility. For every archival find, there are hundreds and hundreds of questions that go unanswered. For every known mark on the page, there are countless others which leave questions of unknown motivation, assumed activities, or assumptions built upon assumptions. The deliberate marks on the page sometimes offer clues to the pattern of how a document has been used by past generations. An attention to these marks shows that documents are not just products of a single generation but are interpreted and used by each subsequent generation. Wood’s little red x is just an example of the importance of paying attention to the materiality of texts. The accumulated marks of documents are worth studying, reassessing, and keeping in mind.
My own mark on history is not too dissimilar to Wood’s. Our archival research is also a mark on the manuscripts. I stake claim of a historic find. When I “discover” an item in the archives, in my excitement, I mark that document—not with a pen or pencil(!)—but through a tweet, a photo, or an entry in my research notes. I summarize, transcribe, describe. I correlate it with other records to shape my argument. The mark on the document comes through my biases, expertise, research, and the context I bring to it. I acquire the pieces of the puzzle, placing them into a picture that I hope is meaningful (or at least comprehensible) to others. Historical narratives are constructions from archival material. The puzzle we create is subjective and the interpretations of the archival material should be constantly questioned by those who take the time to notice the marks they make. Paradoxically, a solid grounding in the archival records offers clarity of some issues and questions of many others.
I now know what that red mark on the third Kirtland-era manuscript means. If I had found this several years ago, I could have added a two-sentence footnote clarifying what we know about the provenance and small custodial chain of the Book of Abraham manuscript. Instead, I’m just a bit late. But to me, the “x” now serves as a reminder of the joys and frustrations of archival research and constantly remembering to pay attention to our own mark in the archives.
I notice random marks on documents. And usually, I stop to think about what they mean.
 I haven’t any idea (yet) what this means. It seems that Wood had an early version of the manuscript of the Book of Abraham in his possession (presumably a published Pearl of Great Price would have been easy to acquire from someone besides Pres. McKay). It seems to be the case and quite interesting to think about such a loan taking place.
 Wilford C. Wood, Report, 10 July 1937, Wilford Wood Museum, Bountiful, Utah. Accessed via microfilm copy, CHL.