In the fall of 1983, Dialogue published Davis Bittonâ€™s personal memoir of Leonard Arringtonâ€™s tenure as Church Historian, â€œTen Years in Camelot.â€? That essay conveyed the excitement of discovering, writing, and publishing Mormon history on a scale never before known. The essay also records disappointment with changes then underway, betraying the uncertainty, even fearfulness, that comes with change.
Church members whose awareness of the Archives is based on that essay â€“ now nearly a quarter of a century out of date â€“ believe the Archives are â€œclosed,â€? that â€œall the good stuff is restricted,â€? even that there is a spirit of hostility and concealment actively working against scholarship.
That just isnâ€™t so.
The Archives are open â€“ wide open â€“ magnificently open. No, you cannot get immediate access to every document you might wish to see. But in almost eight years of spending virtually every business day mining the Archives, I have yet to run out of treasures, nor have I ever disappointed a client by being unable to find sufficient data for a project.
The Archives and Church History Library (recently combined into a single space while they await the completion of their new building) are located in the east wing of the Church Office Building, open 8:00 to 4:30, Monday-Friday. Patrons must show picture ID, but unless youâ€™re among a tiny handful of criminally or psychotically minded former visitors (you know who you are!), the security officer will wave you in.
Many library materials are available on the open shelves, free for browsing and photocopying. Archives (unpublished) materials, and the majority of library (published) materials are requested at the reference desk. While photocopies of these rare or fragile materials are usually not permitted, you are free to transcribe, by pencil, typewriter, or laptop, every word of any document that interests you.
Yes, some materials are restricted, in very narrow categories: An item may be private (pertaining to living people, or to the running of the Church as an institution); confidential (financial records, church courts); or sacred (temple). Those materials are precisely what many people do want to see, of course, which gives rise to complaints about â€œclosed Archives.â€? But if youâ€™re willing to search alternate records creatively, my experience is that you can really learn as much as you need to learn about almost anything.
Vast collections of papers that have not yet been conserved, sorted, or catalogued are also unavailable. The giddiness of â€œCamelotâ€? was created, in part, by the freedom historians had to rummage through boxes that had been sealed since the 19th century. More professional procedures are now in place, and until materials are properly prepared, collections remain unavailable.
You may request permission to view items despite restrictions. These requests are very frequently granted â€“ a record may be restricted because minutes of a church court appear on page 200, but an archivist may be able to show you the entry you need on page 100. Requests are granted most often when you are very specific about what you want, and why. (Even so, donâ€™t bother requesting minutes of the First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve, or Council of Fifty.)
In 2003 the Church published a set of DVDs containing beautifully legible images of minutes of the high councils at Kirtland, Pottowattamie and Winter Quarters, early Relief Society documents, and many of the papers of Joseph Smith, Willard Richards, George A. Smith, Franklin D. Richards, Amasa Lyman, Charles C. Rich, Erastus Snow, Lorenzo Snow, and others. This is the first time many of those collections have been opened to scholars, because digital technology allowed the redaction (clearly indicated) of a few names and other confidential details that required restriction of the original documents. The vast majority of the Brigham Young papers, with a few exceptions that fall under the â€œprivate, confidential, or sacredâ€? rule, are now available, as are the Salt Lake and Nauvoo temple architectural drawings. Newly acquired journals of missionaries and pioneers are too numerous to list. These collections are published or recently opened, in part because of the desire to maintain copyright of key documents following changes to international copyright law, and in part due to the ongoing processing and opening of useful records.
I liken the â€œCamelotâ€? years to Nauvoo excitement over baptism for the dead, when Saints rushed to perform ordinances impetuously and with limited understanding. It must have been glorious to act on that doctrine for the first time, compared to todayâ€™s methodical search and bureaucratic recordkeeping â€“ but really, which system is more productive? The Archives have similarly come of age, and itâ€™s time to put 1983â€™s impressions behind us.