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The New Church History Library Catalog

By: Brett D. - June 22, 2012

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.

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21 Comments

  1. This is fantastic! Making the Selected Collections DVDs available on the internet will save thousands of KB of space on flash drives everywhere.

    Comment by Amanda HK — June 22, 2012 @ 7:59 am

  2. Wow! It just keeps getting better. Thanks for the heads up.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — June 22, 2012 @ 8:14 am

  3. Thanks for the update, Brett. This all sounds fantastic, and that new interface is certainly an improvement.

    Also of note—and this will please Ben and other Evernote devotees—is that among the various “share” options for each collection is the choice to “clip to Evernote.”

    Comment by Christopher — June 22, 2012 @ 8:16 am

  4. Excellent.

    Comment by Ben P — June 22, 2012 @ 8:28 am

  5. Wonderful news. Thanks for the notice. Advances like this are allowing me to do large amounts of work in the biographical history of the original Mormon settlers of the American West from more than 2,000 miles away. At this point, my work is more restricted by the requirements of my primary career than by access to resources.

    (And not to be trivial when this is all happening on such an epic scale, but could someone with editing access to the CHL website correct “Digitial” to “Digital”? That’s a little distracting.)

    Comment by Amy T — June 22, 2012 @ 8:38 am

  6. Good stuff. Thanks, Brett.

    Comment by Ryan T. — June 22, 2012 @ 8:59 am

  7. Thanks for the heads up, Brett, this is fantastic.

    Comment by Jared T — June 22, 2012 @ 9:05 am

  8. Excellent news. The new software is much more slick. The big release of the new catalog was last MHA (2011) with the update scheduled for later that year and then bumped to the spring. I understand what a huge task it, so I’m pleased that they were able to get it done.

    I went through some of my notes from my review of previous iteration last summer, and I think that I will need to fiddle with it a little bit more to get a better handle on it. But it seems to me that the main updates are the inclusions of registers on many files collections (huge win), and the inclusion of digital content linked within the catalog.

    I was at first a little disappointed when the digital mss page was unchanged. Then I realized that the new content wasn’t listed there.

    I searched for several collections that weren’t included in the previous iteration, but are held by the CHL, and they hadn’t been updated yet, so hopefully this is an ongoing processes. I’m also away from my regular computer so don’t have my password to login, but it the link to the CHL photograph collection is now live (with login required). I look forward to digging through that.

    I’m interested in testing out features like the custom RSS feeds to see how responsive they are.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 22, 2012 @ 9:05 am

  9. Wonderful!

    Comment by Jessica F — June 22, 2012 @ 9:46 am

  10. Update: even with an account the photography collections are still not available.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 22, 2012 @ 9:47 am

  11. I also see that with the material from Selected Collections, many documents, which are perhaps considered sensitive, are listed in the digital register, but do not have digital images associated with them, only citations.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 22, 2012 @ 10:46 am

  12. I should probably specify that my second paragraph is about the main CHL page and not the page in the link in the original post.

    Thanks for your additional notes, J. Are there currently other RSS feeds? I would be interested in that feature, since thanks to your previous suggestion elsewhere, I get the Internet Archive RSS feed, and that’s been a great way to get a grasp on the materials in the collection.

    Comment by Amy T — June 22, 2012 @ 10:50 am

  13. How do I find all of the Selected Collections content? I see several of those items, such as the BY correspondence and the Church Minutes, but not others, such as the Historian’s Office Journal. I (or rather, my university) shelled out the $$ for the DVDs quite a few years ago (it was worth the money), but occasionally I’ve had DVD’s break (including #17 with the Historian’s Office Journal). Hence my interest.

    Comment by John T. — June 22, 2012 @ 10:58 am

  14. The interface is SO much better. The search tool seems to be working much more effectively, and it doesn’t require you to switch screens to see what’s in a collection. What a marvelous step forward in the right direction!

    Comment by J Stuart — June 22, 2012 @ 10:58 am

  15. You need to look up the individual collections to get the Selected Collections content, which is rather unfortunate. But you can download the Selected Collections Contents list and find the various call numbers. Just enter the call number in the search box and you should be able to get to it.

    Comment by Brett D. — June 22, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

  16. Thanks, Brett. Now I get it!

    Comment by John T. — June 22, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

  17. One word: Woohoo!

    Comment by Joe Spencer — June 22, 2012 @ 1:14 pm

  18. Exciting news, indeed. I’ll be looking into this later today. But I am still coming to Utah next month, and will still go to the CHL just the same.

    Comment by kevinf — June 22, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

  19. Thanks for the update, Brett. The old catalog was terribly unhelpful. I’m very happy to see that there are now detailed registers and finding aids for a number of collections which previously had none.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — June 22, 2012 @ 4:15 pm

  20. At last: Access to the Heber J. Grant journals. Maybe I can at last find some trace of humor or compassion in the great man’s writings!

    Maybe.

    Terms Governing Access:
    Access limited. Consult reference staff.

    “Not until William P. MacKinnon['s] groundbreaking work “At Sword’s Point: A Documentary History of the Utah War’ . . . has more equal access to such sources been allowed—although experience has taught us that some historians are more equal than others.”

    Comment by Will Bagley — June 22, 2012 @ 7:13 pm

  21. Wow! This is good news indeed. Was just down at the history library a few weeks ago collecting research for my next historical novel… did not know this much is online and I could do it from the comfort of my own (rather uncomfortable) office chair. :D

    Comment by Sarah Dunster — June 23, 2012 @ 9:56 pm