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Digitizing Mormon History: Update, Potential, and Pitfalls

By: Ben P - May 30, 2011

To say that the study of Mormon history has entered the digital age would be a drastic understatement. Last friday, representatives from the LDS Church History Library gave what appears to be an exhilarating introduction to new web content for both the Library itself as well as the Joseph Smith Papers. (A Mormon Times article last week also highlighted the JSP’s emphasis shift from print to web, though there will still be much printed goodness.) The awesomeness of these sites and their online content cannot be overstated. I fear that if I tried to outline the positive aspects of this I would merely be stating the obvious. Regardless, I drone on. I’d like to outline what some of the best online digital sources are, what the positive impact may be within the Church and the academy, and finish with a few words of caution.

Online sources for Mormon history has come along way. What used to be basic html transcriptions (like Saints Without Halos, BOAP, Uncle Dale, etc.), are now being joined by high-quality images of documents themselves. What follows is the list of websites that include fantastic online digital images:

  1. Church History Library Digital Collection. Currently includes the Joseph Smith Collection, the BYU Letterpress Copybooks, the Church Historian’s Office and General Minute Books, and several cool architectural manuscripts. This collection will continue to expand, and word has it that a majority of the contents of the Selected Collections DVDS will make it on the site eventually. If true, this will be a fantastic collection of epic proportions.
  2. The Joseph Smith Papers Project. The website currently contains Smith’s 1830s journals, 420 documents from what will be the first 4 volumes of the Documents Series, and several extremely important minute books. (Including the Relief Society Minute Book.) As the presentation on Friday apparently described, much more material will be put up soon.
  3. Archive.org’s Mormon Collection. The LDS Library has been continuously putting excellent sources on here for about a year. Lots of goodies to peruse. Things include books, proclamations, hymnbooks, pamphlets, newspapers, etc.
  4. BYU Library’s Mormon Publications Collection. This site includes basically every major book, pamphlet, and newspaper from the 19th Century.
  5. 19th Century Publications about the Book of Mormon. A fantastic collection of newspapers, books, and pamphlets from the first few decades of the Church, written by non-Mormon observers.
  6. Utah Digital Newspapers. Title is pretty self-explanatory.

I’m sure I’m missing some, but you get the point.

I have recently mused on what role documentary projects, especially the Joseph Smith Papers Project, may play in how we as a Church understand our history. By avoiding the snares of interpretation, messages and lessons gleaned from historical texts are much more subtle. They force the careful reader to reconsider traditional narratives, feel a closer connection with the past, and broaden our understanding of the complexities of the historical record. We have come a long way since the Ensign forced Richard Bushman to edit Joseph Smith’s language in an article on the Prophet’s holographic writings. The Church’s decision to place all these crucial documents online, without doctoring, signals an important moment when we are finally growing comfortable enough with our history to allow unmediated access to foundational texts. We have long claimed that Mormonism can withstand historical scrutiny; now we are putting that claim to the test.[1]

Now, to the impact on scholarly history. I will touch on several elements of this possible impact, both positive and negative. The positive value is obvious: online documents means more access to more people. As a student of American history who lives an ocean away from my sources, I’ve grown to sincerely appreciate online access to research material. This digital movement will make broad research much more possible to people who live far away from Zion, as trips to Salt Lake become much less necessary. Mormon scholars won’t have to be located in Utah anymore. Further, silly mistakes and omitted texts become much less defensible. It should broaden the pool of those who do Mormon history. No matter what the negative effects are, this is overall an overwhelmingly positive development.

But there are, indeed, downsides. First and foremost, it can at times encourage lazy history. Previous historians have been forced to toil in libraries and archives for hours to find a nugget of gold; conversely, when all you have to do is open a browser and press a link, things can be taken for granted. Students and researchers may content themselves with reading a few pamphlets, glancing through a few newspapers, and skimming through some books, and then feel like they have a good “grasp” of the issue. Dependence on online sources has the potential to weaken, rather than strengthen, one’s overall background in the history, for using simple “search” functions to find quick answers will never compensate the practice of searching page by page, document by document, and journal by journal, and familiarizing oneself with the larger corpus of records. I guess what I’m trying to say is I fear that online research may discourage good old fashioned work ethic. And this doesn’t even touch on the threat of isolationism: limiting one’s research to a personal computer means losing the opportunity of gaining the research help found at historical archives, both from the staff and from fellow patrons.

Second, this digitizing of history has a tendency to privilege certain forms of history and focus on only a certain segment of people. Records most often digitized—both out of practicality and interest—include pamphlets, books, newspapers, and other printed documents. When texts that are of a more private nature are made available, they are often administrative minutes, office letterbooks, or, with the JSP, the private documents of prominent leaders. While these sources are invaluable to studies of major figures, intellectual history, or theology, just to name a few fields, it presents a pertinent problem: these approaches perpetuate the lack of focus on ordinary Saints and crucial vantage points like lived religion. They continue Mormonism’s emphasis on top-down history, and have the potential to continue the ignoring of non-elite figures. Why would someone put in the hours of going to an archive or perusing a private collection in order to unearth the life of an average housewife, when it is much easier to just stick to the digital sources that narrate the life of Joseph Smith or Brigham Young?

But let me repeat that the digitization process, on the whole, is overwhelmingly positive. I hope that we can merge the work ethic of past generations with the remarkable access to documents we have in the new. The Church should be highly commended for putting these documents online. I can’t way to see where we (as a Church, and as an academy) go from here.

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[1] It should be remembered, of course, that there is still a long way to go. As I remember Elder Marlin K Jensen put it at the party launching the JSP’s first volume: not all historical documents and issues are of equal controversial value. The JSP, for example, still has thorny issues like Nauvoo polygamy to deal with. We are finally stepping our toes in these controversial matters, yes, but we must keep in mind that the water only gets deeper and murkier from here.



24 Comments

  1. Thanks for the write-up, Ben. I’m glad to see these websites get some press time – the CHL offerings of course, but also the relatively unknown offerings like the growing Mormon collection on archive.org. I share your concern that electronic publication may lead to sloppy research practices. There is also the problem of putting too much trust in search capabilities, especially with OCR texts like on the Utah Digital Newspapers site. If you’re running keyword searches on that site instead of browsing, you’ll probably miss up to 50% of the relevant content because the automated text recognition misses so much.

    At the same time, though, having images and transcripts together online can lead to researchers considering sources they may have skipped. I had to give up on a really promising journal during a recent project because it took hours and hours to decipher small portions and I didn’t have time to continue. The web allows someone who does have time to decipher difficult texts (think some of the JSP documents) to share their hard-won transcript with the wider world.

    Comment by Nate — May 30, 2011 @ 8:32 am

  2. Lest anyone think Ben is wringing his hands a little too soon about the negative possibilities of the positive good of online access, consider what has happened to genealogical research in the digital age. The digital revolution hit genealogists a full generation before it is reaching historians, and I expect historians will to some extent follow in the downward steps of genealogists.

    You’re right, Ben, that the ease of digital publications limits what researchers do. First comes the unwillingness, and eventually the inability (through disuse) to use the research skills that you have honed and that have produced results in the past: if it isn’t on the computer, people won’t consult it. Whenever I go to the Family History Library, I hear patrons flat out refusing to use microfilm. And yeah, after a few obvious searches of digital indexes, if they don’t find the name they are looking for, they assume the name isn’t there — they won’t (or don’t know how to) scroll through the pages looking for names that are misindexed, misspelled, or obscured for some other reason. And it is so easy to copy someone else’s work without really looking at it, either to know whether they did it right or whether you’re copying it right — I remember when a man was mislinked as the husband of his step-grandmother a few years ago and have watched in disbelief as that has spread to hundreds of websites like a fungus on the internet. The mistake is accompanied by legitimate-looking citations, and apparently nobody even thinks about its unlikelihood anymore.

    Historians, especially academically trained ones, might think that laziness and lack of skill of amateur genealogists won’t apply to your field — think again. Can’t you think of analogous situations in recent years, like the award-winning historian who published an article in the premier Mormon historical journal with citations that were 99% from the easily accessed Journal History, without his even bothering to chase those entries one step back to their original sources?

    Another hazard is what digitization does to libraries and the people who work with the public. I can and do still use the full resources of the Family History Library, but I have to do so from my experience and knowledge developed pre-Ancestry.com. The professional staff to which the public has access there has been reduced to a small handful, replaced by an army of willing but amateur missionaries who are utterly untrained in anything but census searches on Ancestry.com. There’s all that wealth of material housed in microfilms, without a soul — unless you know one of that remaining handful of experts — to advise you on research techniques and resources. It’s like they’ve locked the doors to the museum and just let people peek through grimy windows at the treasures inside.

    Frankly, the same thing is already happening at the Church History Library. You JI men and women may not experience that because most of you have all-access passes to the scholars and resources outside of the public areas. But someone like me, who is limited to librarians (good as they may be at locating identified materials, they do not generally know much about history, or anything about archival sources) and missionaries. A real archivist may spent a couple of hours every week on the desk where I could reach him, but usually they are too busy, or else I don’t have a need during that tiny window, to get the help and inspiration I used to get when the professional staff was accessible. I think that as more and more materials are made available online, the administration will understand less and less the importance of real historians being available to patrons — it will be too easy to just wave at the computer terminals and tell patrons to start searching, or to consult missionaries whose knowledge is limited to awareness of two or three standard databases.

    Egads, this comment/tirade is long. I’m sorry. I don’t want to delete it, though — it’s a warning based on experience, and backs up some of your speculative fears.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 30, 2011 @ 9:41 am

  3. Great point Ardis. (And great point about how silly errors propagate in genealogy – I wonder there if we haven’t reached a point where we can’t progress because every time someone knowledgeable fixes things new people screw it up)

    Comment by Clark — May 30, 2011 @ 10:23 am

  4. Ben,

    Excellent post and timely reminder. One other pitfall that you allude to is the partial digitization of collections. A personal illustration: after using a very important online Mormon collection held in the Midwest, I finally made it to the repository to look at the original only to discover that the repository had only digitized half of the collection. The other half about knocked me out of the chair with its importance. Realizing that there were hundreds of historians who used this collection not realizing what they were missing is frustrating to me.

    Another difficulty: partially digitizing pages. I often find a recto of a leaf digitized without an accompanying verso (or the content of a volume without its covers, inside front and back covers, and spine). When the verso is not digitized, it sometimes means it’s blank, but I’ve seen on a number of occasions (when consulting the original) where the undigitized verso had some endorsement that was important in understanding the context of creation, use, or storage of the document.

    And then there’s the difficulty of really representing the original. After months or years of using a digital image of something, I’ve on several occasions been surprised with the items’ size, weight, or other condition that helps me envision the cultural aspect of the documents’ creation, use, and storage.

    As you say, we’re going to be missing some important elements of a documents context and content if we’re satisfied with digitized access. We should treat digitized documents as the initial–rather than the final–approach to access of a document.

    Comment by Robin Jensen — May 30, 2011 @ 11:21 am

  5. I love the digitalization projects in my own field for all the reasons Ben mentions, but the pitfalls he and others have identified are all too real. Ardis’s suggestion to look at what’s happened in other fields is exactly right, and so is Robin’s last point: scanning the digital version is a wonderful opportunity to take a first step, but it’s just a first step. Even the best digitalization projects will take a bound volume of 50 different pamphlets, scan them, and make them available as 50 separate items, obliterating their shared transmission history.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — May 30, 2011 @ 11:44 am

  6. Great write-up and comments.

    I went through the recently released catalog and found a couple of items relating to female healing which I hadn’t seen. There was also a lot which I have seen that didn’t come up in regular searches.

    Here
    is the list I keep and use pretty regularly.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 30, 2011 @ 12:44 pm

  7. Thanks, all. You’ve expanded and improved the observations in the post even better than I’d had hoped. I’m glad to know I’m not alone in this.

    And a confession to J: I totally use your list on splendid sun constantly, both in my own research and in recommendations to others. (even for this post!)

    Comment by Ben — May 30, 2011 @ 2:22 pm

  8. For those of us thousands of miles and hundreds of dollars away from Salt Lake, being able to search the Church History Library Catalog is significant. Now I can request items by call number and I know how many pages to expect. Before I had to call or email the Library and then wait to see if what I was looking for even existed. I know the catalog is not a perfect representation of what’s in the Library, but it’s a huge asset.

    I agree with Robin about including the spine and covers in scans. I was surprised to find that these items were not included in the copy of the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book on the Joseph Smith Papers Project (JSPP) website. They are included in Selected Collections and I assume the same images were used for the JSPP site.

    Just as Robin suggested, the missing pages contain brief but valuable information on the provenance of the book. Yet, I understand that it may not be within the scope of the project to include a dozen blank pages at the beginning of the book.

    I’m pleased that the items posted by the Church History Library on archive.org contain the inside front and back covers. Sometimes the information on these pages/covers is what makes the copy unique.

    Comment by Matthew R. Lee — May 31, 2011 @ 1:10 am

  9. “quick answers will never compensate the practice of searching page by page, document by document, and journal by journal, and familiarizing oneself with the larger corpus of records.”

    Cannot be emphasized too much, Ben. Thanks for this note.

    Comment by WVS — May 31, 2011 @ 2:39 am

  10. #9: “Cannot be emphasized too much.”
    But I think you have. For me, who is a non-professional, non-post gaduate, this sounds like the auto will never replace the horse.
    Yes, caution is wise. But the benefits of the digital age far out weighs it’s problems IMO.

    Comment by Bob — May 31, 2011 @ 10:55 am

  11. Yes__it should be graduate.

    Comment by Bob — May 31, 2011 @ 10:58 am

  12. Also as an amateur researcher doing a lot of the work long distance, I applaud all the benefits of the online archives and access. I’ve also had in a much more limited way, a few surprises going page by page through original documents and microfiche/microfilm. The cautions are warranted, but for me the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

    The other antidote for the potential problems, though, seems to be also related to the advent of digital technology. I can’t tell you how much this site, and other online communities and blogs, have helped me in getting some understanding of the historical research process. I won’t mention names, but having access to some much more competent researchers and historians online has also helped me immensely in my research and in the writing. Being able to attach a manuscript, and get it back in a couple of days, with annotations and criticism is a huge benefit for me. The face to face I got with a few folks at MHA last weekend in St. George was invaluable, but ongoing communications with those folks will also be through online resources and email. I don’t think there are huge new pitfalls, just the same old ones manifesting themselves in different ways.

    Comment by kevinf — May 31, 2011 @ 11:34 am

  13. There’s no question that digitization is important, even vital. We were on the ground floor there and maintain a presence. But for anything beyond personal or casual research, context is the key. As Robin points out, until you hold it in your hands, you can never be sure.

    Comment by WVS — May 31, 2011 @ 11:52 am

  14. By all means, we should welcome digitization and use it to the fullest extent possible — just let’s not stop there.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 31, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

  15. … or let colleagues stop there, for that matter.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 31, 2011 @ 12:54 pm

  16. Bob: I made it clear in the post that I do think the benefits outweigh the negatives. If documents haven’t been digitized the way they have been in the last decade, I would have never been able to write the articles/theses I did over the last few years.

    But, as the commenters have outlined in much greater detail than I have, there are real concerns that we need to keep in mind. Online sources are important, but they should still remain supplementary.

    Comment by Ben — May 31, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

  17. #16: Ben, I have full respect for what you do as a full time Historian, and the concerns.
    But for me, ‘online’ is core, not supplementary. What work I do in Family History is about scanning, downloading, searching datsbases , a network of e-mailings that goes all the way to Sweden. It’s about my Website, my family conections where I confirm my thoughts, by asking “who knows about this or this photo?” It’s about finding that one fact or photo from 30 people, and then in turn sending/sharing that fact/photo with the 30 people.
    In ten years, these digital powers will be 10x greated, with (I hope) 10x fewer errors.

    Comment by Bob — May 31, 2011 @ 4:43 pm

  18. Ben, thank you so much for highlighting this issue. I enjoyed your post and the wonderful comments. Below is a link to a NYTimes article that relates to this discussion, “Digital Keys to Unlocking the Humanities’ Riches.” I’m glad that we’re looking at potential pitfalls amid all the promise.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/17/arts/17digital.html

    Comment by Alan — May 31, 2011 @ 6:06 pm

  19. From the NYTimes article:

    “The online network of maps is distinct from most scholarly endeavors in another respect: It is communal. The traditional model of the solitary humanities professor, toiling away in an archive or spending years composing a philosophical treatise or historical opus is replaced in this project with contributions from a global community of experts.”

    What would this virtual community of Mormon scholars look like? Mormon history blogs are certainly contributing to this.

    Comment by Alan — May 31, 2011 @ 6:10 pm

  20. Bob: I fear we may be talking past each other. Most of my pitfalls are speaking specifically of scholarly and professional historians, not recreational. For someone dabbling in this stuff, this indeed can be the core.

    Comment by Ben — June 1, 2011 @ 2:12 am

  21. #20: Ben,
    I hope we are not talking passed each other. Amateurs like to get it right too.
    Check out WeRelate.Org. This is an effort for amateur Family Historians to get it right by using tools of such as peer reviews (by others working the same family lines) through a wiki model.

    Comment by Bob — June 1, 2011 @ 6:06 pm

  22. Great post, great discussion. A fascinating related discussion is John Durham Peters, “Why we Use Pencils and Other Thoughts on the Archive (An Afterword),” Media History and the Archive, pp. 108-120. Highly, highly recommended.

    Comment by BHodges — June 7, 2011 @ 2:37 pm

  23. As a person who lives an ocean away from any decent collection of Mormon sources, I also appreciate the digitalization projects, which are crucial to my research. But as a person who specifically researches “ordinary Saints” your post definitely touched a chord. Since online sources are basically my only source, do you think it’s at all possible to bypass this obstacle?

    Comment by Nathaniel — June 11, 2011 @ 12:57 pm

  24. Great question, Nathaniel. I sincerely hope that part of the digitization process will include the plethora of common saints’ personal papers found in the archives. But there are many logistics and difficulties in doing such a think—how do they choose which collections? how do they get permission for all of them? how do they privilege some voices over others? etc.—so it will be interesting to see what happens.

    Comment by Ben — June 13, 2011 @ 11:10 am