There is a wide-spread public perception that the Church Archives is closed. In what follows, I consider four different variations of this question in order to consider the depth of the concern. I will then summarize several initiatives of the Church History Department that address these and other issues.
Is the public allowed to enter the Church Archives?
The reading rooms of the Church History Department in the east wing of the Church Office Building are open to the public from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, except certain official holidays. This schedule corresponds with the hours that the Church Office Building is generally open to the public. In addition, various historical databases can be accessed at any time at lds.org and josephsmith.net. As a record of our public service in 2006, nearly 50,000 archival items were circulated to more than 13,000 patrons, consisting largely of family historians, Church headquarters personnel, and academic scholars. During the same time, our modest on-line databases received about one million hits. While the on-site numbers are not unusual for comparable research libraries, the disparity between on-site and on-line visitors suggests the potential of our serving in the future a much greater audience through the Internet.
Are the collections of the Church History Department accessible?
This question refers not to the location of the holdings and the hours of operation but whether the collections themselves can be examined by the public. In order to address this issue, we must first understand that virtually all collecting institutions restrict access to their collections to some degree. The level of restriction generally varies by type of institution. Collections in public libraries tend to be the most accessible, followed by those in special collections and academic research libraries. Private and corporate archives generally adopt the most restrictive access policies, and museums, for the most part, allow access only to their collections on public display.
Because the Church Archives is more like a private or corporate archives, its collections are more restricted than those of a public or special collections library. However, the Church Archives makes a remarkable number of its records accessible to the public. In an effort to clarify its collections access policies, more than a decade ago the Church History Department defined the criteria and procedures for gaining access to historical records. By policy, collections are publicly accessible unless they have sacred, private, or confidential contents. Let me explain briefly these criteria.
- Sacred. Like all religions that have a strong commitment to preserving their sacred beliefs and practices, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is obligated to keep certain materials holy, particularly those associated with the temple.
- Private. Privacy is the legal recognition that certain kinds of personal information, such as health history, cannot be publicly divulged without the permission of the living individual connected with that information.
- Confidential. Confidential records are those that relate to executive or proprietary Church-related matters such as minutes of presiding councils and proceedings of disciplinary actions.
A formal review process assigns a level of access restriction to holdings that have sacred, private, or confidential contents. However, just because a record is restricted does not mean that access is impossible. Some restricted records may be accessed with the permission of authorized department personnel. SPC policies and practices are periodically reviewed for clarity, consistency, and alignment.
Is the experience of visitors to the Church Archives productive and enjoyable?
Visitors’ experiences at the Church Archives greatly influence their perception of its openness. It has been our perception that many visitors have had very rewarding experiences researching its holdings. Effective finding aids, helpful user interfaces, welcome settings, and even the secure environment of the reading rooms communicate a sense of permanence, protection, professionalism, and importance. Nevertheless, we recognize the need constantly to improve our performance in this area, particularly for interested patrons from throughout the world who will likely never visit Salt Lake City or Church headquarters. Therefore, the experience of our on-line patrons must be as rewarding as that of our on-site visitors.
Are the holdings of the Church Archives relevant?
Collecting institutions like the Church Archives may be open to the public at convenient hours and have liberal access policies and attractive public service programs and yet not be compelling because few patrons care about the content of their collections. This is the case with many special collections libraries or private archives whose collections are so arcane or narrowly defined so as to be irrelevant to most ordinary people. Concern that archival collections of the Church are not relevant to abiding public interests is the least of the four concerns I have addressed today. The comparative popularity of Church History websites suggests that the relevance of the collections is far less of a public concern than are the convenience of the library and accessibility of the collections. However, as the Church continues to spread throughout the world, the Church History Department faces an ever more daunting challenge to represent in its collections the Church’s growing size, complexity, and significance.
From the perspective of these four discussion points, we could answer the question, “Is the Church Archives closed?” with a resounding “No.” It is open; its collections are remarkably accessible and relevant to a wide range of research interests; and the experience of visitors is quite positive.
At the same time, the Church History Department recognizes that much must be done to improve its service to the worldwide Church in the twenty-first century. In the time remaining, I will summarize six related initiatives by which the Church History Department is doing just that.
Any institution like the Church History Department must define its work in terms of its core identity. That is, before answering the questions “what do we do?” and “how do we do it?” — we must consider the question “why:” why does the Church have a large-scale and multifaceted historical enterprise? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is rare, if not unique among Christian religions regarding its level of commitment to record-keeping and history-making. Understanding the spiritual roots of this commitment will reveal the core purpose of the Church History Department. In an effort to answer the “why” question of Church history, a few years ago department administration undertook an exhaustive study of the Church’s Standard Works, pursuing three general questions: (1) what are the commandments in modern revelations that define and direct the Church’s historical enterprise? (2) why are most of the Church’s scriptures written as narrative? and (3) is there a theological connection between the gospel of Jesus Christ and the history of the Church? We discovered that as presented in the scriptures, history infuses the gospel with immediacy, relevance, and vitality.
We synthesized the hundreds of relevant scriptural passages into a short paragraph that serves now as the purpose statement of the Church History Department.
As defined in the scriptures, a central purpose of history in the Church of Jesus Christ is to help God’s children make and keep sacred covenants by: (1) Assuring remembrance of the great things of God, (2) Helping to preserve the revealed order of the Kingdom of God, and (3) Witnessing to and defending the truth of the Restoration in this dispensation.
This statement defines four essential dimensions of the department’s identity. First, it defines its core work. It recognizes that the professional activities of acquiring, describing, preserving, providing access to, and interpreting historical records are various means to a spiritual end, but not ends in themselves. By focusing on the spiritual objectives of our work, the purpose statement distinguishes the Church History Department from all other collecting institutions and aligns its work with the central mission of the Church.
Secondly, the statement defines the ultimate spiritual impact of this work. The key verbs – remember, preserve, and witness – all have strong covenantal connotations, as they are used in the scriptures. Therefore, the scriptural concept of covenants unites and integrates the three central objectives of Church History into a lofty, gospel-oriented value proposition.
Thirdly, the statement identifies the primary beneficiaries of our work. The Church History Department will continue to serve its scholarly and general audiences, but we recognize that its products and services will benefit most those from throughout the world who are interested in making and keeping sacred gospel covenants.
Finally, the statement implies a strategy for doing department work. “Helping God’s children make and keep sacred covenants” is a purpose shared by many organizations in the Church. However, none of these organizations is sufficient to accomplish this purpose alone, and the role of our department is unique. Therefore, the Church History Department will best accomplish the larger scope of its purpose as it collaborates with essential partners.
In order to accomplish its ambitious purpose, the Church History Department needs to understand and serve a worldwide audience and to develop collections and related programs that reflect a rapidly expanding Church. To this end, the department is now formally organized so that each division represents a core department function. Some of these functions, like Audience Needs, have been organized for the first time. The department will continue to adapt its formal structure to reflect the maturing nature of its essential work.
After more than ten years of planning, ground was broken on October 11, 2005 for the construction of a new 250,000 square foot Church History Library. Scheduled for completion in 2009, the facility, which is located on the northeast corner of Main Street and West Temple, just east of the Conference Center, will (1) house most of the department’s documentary collections and (2) serve as the public interface for most historical research purposes. It will have inviting spaces for patrons to research the history of the Church, classrooms for presentations about Church history, secure state-of-the-art storage areas to accommodate the growth and assure the preservation of relevant collections for the foreseeable future, and a variety of work spaces for employees and other staff. It is named “Church History Library” to signal a greater commitment by the department to serve the public in more effective and engaging ways in the future.
Planning and Technology
In order to serve its worldwide audience in terms of a central purpose and with limited resources, the department must adopt ways of doing its work more efficiently and effectively. Hence for the first time, the department is creating a series of tools to focus our energies, track our productivity, report our progress, streamline our operations, and prepare for the future. Tools such as these will not do away with the need for a creative and productive workforce; rather they will allow the workforce to extend the influence of department work as never before.
Mixed Work Force
We recognize that our staff is the department’s most valuable resource. At the same time, we recognize that regardless of its professionalism, the existing staff by itself cannot begin to accomplish the full extent of work that we have to do, even with the anticipated improvements in planning and technology. Thus we are committed to the concept of a future workforce that includes more missionaries, interns, contractors, and temporary workers than ever before. Currently, Church History missionaries contribute nearly three-quarters of the man hours of our paid staff. This percentage will need to increase if the department is to accomplish its worldwide purpose. Interestingly, this need is coming at a time when the most highly trained generation ever of Latter-day Saints is entering retirement and when the first complete generation of technically-savvy graduates is entering the job market. We must be better prepared to take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity.
In conclusion, as I reflect on the history of the Church History Department, I recognize that each generation has contributed a degree of increased professionalism, which has produced larger, more useful, and more accessible collections. In the end, however, the most important question to ask of the Church Archives may not be “Is it closed?” Rather I suggest a more central and challenging issue is whether the Church History Department is performing its divinely-mandated mission. If it is, I sense that there will be historical records that are “sufficient for the need,” and opportunities to learn about and contemplate the things of God that are “more than enough and to spare.” I believe strongly that as we seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, we will be stretched beyond our natural capacities to accomplish his work “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” I trust that the openness of the Archives will be a means to that end but acknowledge that openness is not an end of itself.