The Value of Mormon History Research Collections

By April 16, 2009

Over the past few years I have gone through a few large Mormon history research collections, including the Kenney Collection at BYU, the Stanley Ivins Collection at the Utah State Historical Society, and the D. Michael Quinn Collection at Yale.  All of these collections have yielded immense amounts of information that I probably would not have come across elsewhere.  The Kenney Collection contains boxes of notes from the First Presidency Papers, General Auxiliary Organization Board Minutes, and other materials that are restricted at the Church Archives.  While the Ivins Collection does not contain as much information from restricted collections at the Church Archives, it is an important collection of notes from diaries and books written by people who visited Utah during the nineteenth century, many of which are obscure.  And the Quinn Papers contain what is perhaps the gold mine of information from restricted Mormon archival materials, with notes from General Authority diaries, Quorum of the Twelve and Seventies Minutes, and notes from a vast number of other important Mormon sources.

Each of these collections has yielded valuable material that I would likely have never seen; however, these collections also pose an important question for Mormon historians who access their information, namely, “To what degree can we rely upon the research notes of other historians, particularly when the sources are unavailable to us, in our historical research and writing?”  It seems to me that collections like these put Mormon historians in a difficult possition.  Often they contain information that greatly augments our arguments and that helps to prove our points.  At the same time they contain within them a built in counterargument, that they were manufactured by the historian who composed the notes.  Ideally access to at least some of these collections would be granted, thus lessening the need to rely upon others’ notes, but in the meantime Mormon historians must grapple with the question of to what extent they can and will use such notes.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Good questions, Brett.

    The biggest disappointment I had when going through the Quinn collection was that everything was transcripts rather than actual photocopies. At least in Kenney’s collection there is a ton of photocopies of the actual documents.

    Comment by Ben — April 16, 2009 @ 1:24 pm

  2. Good questions. I’ve seen more publications willing to use references to Quinn’s collection, etc. Which is not necessarily good or bad, I think. Though I think it would be a negative if using those collections discouraged the researcher from exhausting all possible avenues in getting verification. On some occasions, if you can provide references to the keepers of the originals, you can get those portions of the restricted content verified, which can help. I think that by placing some sort of note in the introduction about the use of such sources and the inherent limitations involved, one could largely acknowledge the issue. I’m interested to hear others’ thoughts as I’ve wondered the same thing myself.

    Comment by Jared T — April 16, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

  3. The use of these sources would give me no consternation. All history is recorded by biased, fallible humans with faulty memories. I say that anyone questioning the reliability of these sources is the one under obligation to demonstrate it. No doubt adding another layer of fallibility (the researchers notes) makes it more problematic, but when it’s all you got, I say, hurray for Quinn et al.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 16, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

  4. As Steve Fleming points out, these sources are not necessarily any more questionable for having been through a sifting process than any other source is. Archival traces are necessarily the results of filtering, sometimes intentional, often natural or random. Not everything is written down, the things that are recorded pass through a human mind, and relatively few of these traces make it into an archive. The relationship between the archive and “history” raises a host of philosophical issues that touch on the very core of what we understand the historical enterprise to be, with especially deleterious effects on the positivist approach to the project.

    I think that the presence of a ts instead of a ms poses an additional, and obvious, problem, especially when the originals (or photocopies of them) are not available for cross checking.

    Comment by SC Taysom — April 16, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

  5. Nice write up. I have spent a reasonable time in various researchers’ papers and in every case they have been wildly helpful. There are problems as you note – frequently when I have verified Kenney’s abbreviated typescript excerpts, I have found the original much more helpful in contextualizing the statement.

    I do tend to think, however, that a quality researcher’s typescripts are valid, though not to supersede the original mss. I agree with Fleming here.

    I haven’t worked in Quinn’s papers yet (Yale!), but I have noticed at least once where he quoted Clayton’s diary in a paper and when I checked it against the later transcript of Ehat as reproduced in An Intimate Chronical, there were significant difference. Not necessarily enough to obfuscate meaning, but in the absence of the holograph, it does present some problems.

    There is also the problem of finding a source to verify a transcript. I found some wonderful blessing excerpts in Arrington’s papers but no body in the LDS Archive had a clue as to where they were from.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 17, 2009 @ 10:28 am

  6. The need to rely on scholars’ notes is not unique to Mormon history. The Cotton Library fire, and the bombardment of Strasbourg, and the shelling of Belgian libraries, etc., etc., have left us with many cases where the best record we have of many documents consists of some 19th-century scholar’s transcription.

    What is unusual about the situation is that the original documents still exist, and so there’s always the risk that greater accessibility in the future will make something you write today look foolish. The closest analogy to that I can think of might be scholars who work on documents that moved from Berlin to St. Petersburg in 1945 or thereabouts.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — April 17, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

  7. All great comments. I personally have nothing against using any of these notes in the absence of the originals, but I have run into some who raise their eyebrows when I mention that I retrieved the information from Quinn’s notes, because of the polarizing status of the note taker. As far as Kenney’s notes go, his abbreviations can get confusing from time to time, particularly in his notes from the YMMIA board minutes.

    Comment by Brett D. — April 18, 2009 @ 7:13 pm

  8. Ain’t nothing like the real thing

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — April 20, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

  9. … says the man who probably borrows the odd seerstone now and then and loses track of it under all the early 19th century original documents scattered on his desk.

    /s/ Green eyed monster

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — April 20, 2009 @ 2:07 pm

  10. You know Mark, there are only two types of historians: those who know documents, and…

    /inside joke

    Comment by Ben — April 20, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

  11. For years during the 1990s I made repeated requests to LDS Archives to see the minutes of the 12 Apostles for 24 May 1845, which I knew existed due to a note in D. Michael Quinn, “The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power” (S.L.C: Signature Books, 1994). These were critical to determining why Sam Brannan was excommunicated and, as it turned out, debunked several myths about his marriages and cast his later opposition to polygamy in an entirely new light. They proved essential to compiling “Scoundrel’s Tale.”

    As noted, “Despite repeated written requests to the LDS Historical Department, the original minutes are not available to scholars. Historian D. Michael Quinn provided these transcriptions from the Minutes of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles made while he was employed by the LDS church. Quinn?s transcripts are in his papers in the Yale Collection of Western Americana and will eventually be opened to researchers.” I was able to go through Quinn’s papers in 2000 and 2001.

    Here’s what I got:

    Bro. [George B.] Wallace said, his sister came to his house in New Bedford, [Massachusetts, and] told him Bro Brannan had waited on some, one Sunday [when] she staid at home. Bro Brannan staid at home [too]. On the edge of the [bed?] Brannan accomplished his desire, & went into the kitchen. Messeur [my sister?] came in & after reported She was dissatisfied. Wm [Smith] sealed them up. It worried her to think she must be Brannans. Bro [Parley P.] Pratt told her the sealing was not according to the Law of God. [She] went into consumption & died. [Sarah E. Wallace, born 12 July 1825, died on 17 March 1845.] Wallace wrote Br Pratt, about Brannan, that unless he repented he could not be crowned in the celestial kingdom. She said her sickness was occasioned by what had passed.

    Wm Smith, acquainted with Sis Wallace at Low[el]l, [said she was] of poor health. Brannan asked Smith if he had any objection to mar[r]y them. She manifested [a] strong attachment for Brannan. I married them[?]did not consider he had was under any obligation to any one else. Married them by all the authority he possess[e]d for time & Eternity, and had a right &c to do as an apostle of J Christ. Father [Freeman] Nickerson preached that if anyone should get hold of his skirts or any else, on the spiritual wife system, they would go to hell. & she believed it. Sis Wallace wrote Brannan upbraiding him with the humbug & charging me with assisting Brannan.

    Prest Young, said since Sis Wallace had gone home, we could throw the mantle over the whole [affair] & shut[t]er the subject.


    Yep, “Ain?t nothing like the real thing.” But as long as the LDS Church wants to play hide the historical salami–and anyone who doubts they still do should revisit the revelations about still-secret revelations, or, even better, ask to see the 1844 minutes of the Council of Fifty.

    Comment by Will Bagley — April 20, 2009 @ 5:13 pm


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