Following each General Conference I prepare a list of “Conference Books”—the works cited by speakers in the printed version of their talks. The list is always fascinating. But this time I noticed something that led me to rethink one aspect of the Church’s manuals: availability.
[For what its worth, this years' list of "Conference Books" will be available tomorrow morning here.]
What I noticed started with the new Relief Society book, Daughters in My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society. In their addresses, all of the members of the General Relief Society Presidency mentioned the new book. This included Sister Barbara Thompson, who also mentioned it when she spoke during the Saturday Morning Session. [I was surprised, however, that no one else mentioned or cited the book. Why is that?]
Then I noticed that the speakers frequently cited the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church series of Priesthood and Relief Society manuals. While those manuals have been cited before, this time it occurred to me that the manuals are simply compilations of quotes from a variety of other sources; little in them is newly written. So, why didn’t the conference speakers cite the original works?
The answer is, I think, simple: availability. The reason for citing these works isn’t promotion of new instead of old. The reason is that these works are largely available to the vast majority of LDS Church members, regardless of language and location. The original sources might as well be located on the moon as far as many Church members today are concerned. They can’t get them and wouldn’t be able to get them without a large investment in learning English and a not insignificant expense (for many areas around the world) in purchasing and shipping copies of these books. So it is problematic to cite sources that so many members have no way to get if you can figure out a way to avoid it.
Understanding these issues, the manuals become a more efficient way of getting important portions of the original works into the hands of Church members. Instead of having to translate works like the History of the Church, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Gospel Doctrine, etc., the manuals simply contain the most used and useful excerpts from many of these vital works. In terms of translation, these manuals are much, much more efficient.
I know that this series has been criticized from time to time. For example, the first volume, on Brigham Young, was criticized for its failure to mention polygamy in its biographical pages. I don’t think my observation above suggests anything either way about these criticisms. Instead, this observation makes clear an important problem that we continue to face as the Church spreads into new countries and new languages: how to make the basic teachings available.
If nothing else, this observation makes the role of these manuals even more important—for many Church members they are the first, and perhaps even only, way to access documents that we, English-speakers, take for granted.