This text is re-posted from the Juvenile Instructor blog, published today. Visit the blog for questions and my responses.
One of the most common tropes in Mormon literature asserts that Mormon practices are veiled in secrecy. In the realm of historical practice, the trope has been employed to describe the archival and historical collections of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, presently housed in the Church History Library in Salt Lake City. What lies in the vaults at the Church History Library? What is restricted, and why? Is it possible to use restricted items in your research? What restrictions influence the intellectual property request process? Are restrictions ever lifted?
On February 21, 2017, the public areas in the Church History Library building will re-open after four months of remodeling. While we are very excited about the new classroom and enhancements to the reading room, the occasion also seems to present an opportunity to “unveil” our process for making decisions about access to the Library’s collections. Like all institutional archives, we hold records that must be restricted for statutory, regulatory, contractual, and confidential reasons. Unlike most institutional archives, we have used modern technology to provide unprecedented access to the Library’s collections.
In 2011, the Library’s catalog went online and the following year we began digitizing our records in a systematic, large-scale way. Today there are more than 8.5 million images available in the catalog, 2.7 of which were digitized in 2015 (at a rate of 307 images every hour!). Many sources—such as the Joseph Smith Papers, Relief Society documents, and George Q. Cannon’s diaries—are being transcribed for full-text online searching. In 2015, we began a practice of redaction that now allows us to open thousands of previously restricted items. In the past, if a missionary diary contained the details of a disciplinary council on one page, the entire volume was restricted. Now, we digitize the volume, redact the name(s) of those involved, and release the entire volume (sans redaction) online. In 2015, more than 1,100 existing collections were opened for research. Three quarters of the Library’s holdings are open and available to research.
To put this recent work into context, I’ll share the considerations that influence an access decision, including types of materials in the Library, reasons for restricting access, levels of restriction, and delivery method. At the 2016 meeting of the Mormon History Association, I led a workshop on access restrictions at the Church History Library and this post summarizes that presentation.
1. Types of Materials
The first important consideration for access is the type of material you are seeking. Different reasons for restriction devolve directly from the type of materials in our collections. The Church History Library actually blends three types of institutions under one roof—archives, special collections, and library.
An archives, like the National Archives, is the official final resting place for records produced by an institution during the course of its normal activities. In the Church’s context, for example, when the Church builds a temple, the natural work process produces a record of property purchase, architectural plans, photographs of construction, dedicatory services, media releases, and so on. Other examples include patriarchal blessings and records generated by local church units, such as membership records and ward leadership meeting minutes. As each of those items cease to be needed in day-to-day work, they may be transferred to the Library. Thus, archival collections are typically unique, unpublished, and may be created in many formats (handwriting, photo, electronic document, audio, visual, maps, etc.). Archival materials are assembled by the institution, kept onsite, and preserved for future use. Most government, educational, business, and religious institutions maintain archives. Because private institutions keep the records for their own use, they are often under no obligation to share. Many institutional archives are simply closed to external use—the case with the archives for Coca-Cola, Coach (leather goods), JP Morgan Chase, Motorola, or the Pampered Chef. Some may be accessed by permission of the archivist, general counsel, and/or public affairs (the case with Wells Fargo or Campbell Soup) or by application and letters of reference (Citigroup). At the ABC News archive, finished products are not accessible but b-roll footage may be purchased. Even in archives of government or public entities, records are subject to legal or internal restrictions.
To put the Church into historical context, access to the Church’s archival collections have changed over time. In the 1880s the collections were closed (like Coca-Cola), and by the 1950s research could occur by permission (like Wells Fargo). The Hofmann forgeries and bombings produced a general tightening of restrictions during the 1980s and 1990s, but we have become increasingly more open since the turn-of-the-century.
A special collections institution, such as the Huntington Library, proactively seeks special, rare, and valuable materials. Sometimes the materials were published and have become scarce over time, such as rare books, specialized pamphlets, or broadsides. Other special collections materials are unique, such as personal papers, correspondence, photographs, and other manuscripts. In the Church’s context, these materials include early diaries of Church members, correspondence, personal and family papers.
A library, such as the Library of Congress, collects books, printed materials, and AV materials. In many libraries, the materials are not unique, are mass-produced, may be checked out, taken home, worn out (and simply replaced later). In the Church’s context, these materials include newspapers, pamphlets, the books we purchase from university presses, the materials produced by Church Distribution, scholarly journals and magazines to which we maintain subscriptions.
To put the Church History Library into institutional context, the type of materials that we collect and hold represent a combination of the National Archives, the Huntington Library, and the Library of Congress (we have very little in common with a public library). Researchers often visit the University of Utah and then the Church History Library, and leave wondering why things are restricted without realizing that the Marriott Library is primarily a special collection (with a small university archives component)—this makes the comparison between them and us more like an apple and a fruit basket. You may be interested to know that the scale of our operations is also dramatically larger. According to Archives West, Utah State University holds approximately 900 collections and the University of Utah has 3,300. BYU’s special collections holds 15,000. By comparison, the Church History Library provides access to approximately 179,000 collections that are stored onsite, in the Granite Mountain Records Vault (microfilm, digital, and selected book, manuscript, and AV collections), and in approximately two dozen storage locations in countries around the world. In 2015 alone, our archivists and librarians processed 3,300 new archival and manuscript collections and 6,200 new printed and rare items.
2. Reasons for Restriction
In the past, the staff of the Church History Library has talked about records that contain information deemed sacred, private, or confidential. As with other institutions, there are many reasons to restrict access to items and collections.
Some reasons are imposed by external statutory, regulatory, or contractual requirements. We are required by law to protect personal privacy, both in the specifics related to personal identity theft as well as more general respect for living persons. We follow laws created by the legal jurisdictions in which records are created (nations, states) that govern intellectual property, sharing across borders, or records known to be defamatory. Donors may also place restrictions on access as part of a signed donation agreement that becomes legally binding. My favorite example of this type of donor restriction occurred when Abraham Lincoln’s son donated his father’s personal papers to the Library of Congress but prohibited access until 21 years after the son’s death. Lincoln’s papers opened for research in 1949.
Other restrictions are derived from the physical or technical characteristics of the item in question—fragile physical condition, existence on an obsolete media form (very applicable to AV), high monetary value (we won’t send a million-dollar item into the reading room), the location where the item is stored (if it is offsite or in our cold storage vault it will not be available to view immediately).
As the institutional archive of the Church, we are obligated to restrict access to materials that are confidential. This includes records of Church disciplinary proceedings and priest-penitent communications with Church members as well as records that were created in a confidential setting and not intended for public distribution, such as meeting minutes, financial records, and the papers of Church leaders.
Other restrictions are defined by the Church History Department. We do not grant research access to items that are currently on exhibit, being digitized, or that have been acquired but not yet processed. Finally, some items are only temporarily in our custody, because they are on loan from another individual or institution (we had photographs of the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon in the Library while they were being prepared for publication in the Joseph Smith Papers but they were not available to researchers).
We have posted an explanation of these reasons for restrictions on the Library’s website at https://history.lds.org/article/access.
3. Levels of Restriction
The Library assigns different levels of restriction—unrestricted, restricted, and highly restricted. The level is not categorical based on the reasons identified above, but is defined by assessing the mix of all the potential reasons. This is best illustrated by specific examples.
For example, we hold copies of patriarchal blessings. The primary reason for restricting access is that they contain sacred content. But they may also contain information about living persons (a mother’s maiden name, for example, rises to the level of personal identity protection because they are commonly used in security questions). Thus, to almost all requesters, official copies of patriarchal blessings are restricted—official copies enter our collection as the archival copy of work conducted by church officials. However, to the recipient, they are unrestricted (pending verification of the requester’s identity via an LDS Account). Recently, we have also begun to provide copies of blessings for direct-line ancestors and for deceased spouses and children. On the other hand, when individuals make a personal copy of their blessing, such as by writing it into their diary and then donating the diary to us, those copies are unrestricted (they came to us as personal manuscripts, not as official archival records). Some blessings, such as those of Joseph and Emma Smith, have been released for publication as part of the Joseph Smith Papers.
To take another example, materials created by General Authorities receive an initial designation as restricted because the day-to-day work of General Authorities routinely involves numerous sacred, private, or confidential matters. However, on a case-by-case basis we are beginning to change the designation and make some church president materials available. The Joseph Smith Papers are a prime example, so too is the journal of George Q. Cannon. Brigham Young’s office files are available digitally in our online catalog.
As a final example, consider records of disciplinary action. The official records created by priesthood leaders are highly restricted (they were produced in a confidential setting, and they were submitted to us for archiving through an official internal process). Personal manuscript records, such as the diary of a priesthood leader who commented about the process, are restricted (to protect confidentiality, for the legal protection given to priest-penitent communication, and the privacy of living persons may also apply). When a party to a disciplinary process shares his or her perspective publicly, such as in a newspaper or other publication (including in previous eras when the Church published a notice of the decision), the item is unrestricted.
4. Delivery Method
The final consideration in making an access decision involves factors inherent in the delivery method. Our preferred method of delivery is full-text online – this protects the original item from physical handling and makes the item available to all. Redaction permits us to share items online that could not be shared physically. The most significant impediment to online delivery is intellectual property—rights related to copying, publishing, and earning income. For example, due to copyright restrictions, we cannot digitize and post an electronic copy of a newly published book by a university press, though you may visit our building and read that same book on site.
We can also provide access to items in our reading room, and sometimes donors will restrict access to the reading room. In recent years, we have developed an electronic reading room that we call Individual Temporary Access (ITA) to facilitate the fact that some researchers are unable to physically travel to Salt Lake City (the access is managed through an LDS Account for members or guests).
Lastly, in some instances in which a record is restricted, rather than redacting a small portion of an item, we can release a small excerpt. Or, when a researcher has a specific request, we can verify the information in a restricted record.
Access designations of unrestricted, restricted, or highly restricted are the result of a decision-making process that considers material type, multiple external and internal reasons for protecting information and artifacts, and methods of potential delivery. I invite you to access our collections and services online at ChurchHistoryLibrary.org or in person in our newly remodeled reading room in Salt Lake City. Beginning February 21, 2017, we will be open every day at 10:00 a.m., closing most days at 5 p.m., except for 8 p.m. on Thursdays and 3 p.m. on Saturdays. Click the “Ask Us” button anywhere on our website or in our catalog for personalized help. We look forward to helping you in your research.