Sponsored by BYU Studies—Sponsored by BYU Studies—Historian Keith Erekson takes readers behind the scenes of the Church History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.
If you want to learn more, check out “A New Era of Research Access in the Church History Library” in the Oct. 2020 edition of the Journal of Mormon History.
What are your job duties as director of the Church History Library?
Keith Erekson: As director of the Church History Library, I oversee the Church’s record keeping activities. The library is the official archive of the Church, so we are charged with gathering records of official actions, from scripture editions to missionary work to temple construction to local units.
Our archival, manuscript, and print collections are stored in more than two dozen locations around the world. The library’s staff include talented archivists, librarians, records managers, writers, editors, technology specialists, and missionaries who all contribute to the work of collecting, describing, and facilitating appropriate access to the Church’s worldwide collections.
How many questions does the Church History Library answer from online patron submissions?
Keith Erekson: We receive between 300 and 400 questions each month from public patrons. We also field between 200 and 300 requests each month to digitize materials in our collection. We maintain ongoing consultative conversations with dozens of current researchers.
What does SPC mean?
Keith Erekson: The acronym captures a few of the most significant content-based reasons for limiting access to materials in our collection—the contents may describe “sacred” ordinances or experiences, may contain “private” information about individual identities or living persons, or may report information generated in “confidential” settings such as disciplinary councils or meetings of Church leaders.
Why are materials produced by General Authorities often restricted?
Keith Erekson: The materials produced by General Authorities routinely contain information that is sacred, private, and confidential.
By nature of their calling and assignments, General Authorities regularly participate in confidential planning about current and future activities, counsel with individual members about private concerns, and hear about and witness sacred events.
When will the journal of William Clayton be made available and why is it a focus of so much curiosity?
Keith Erekson: We have not established a release date for the journals, but they are in process and will be published after the Joseph Smith Papers wrap up in the next few years.
The journals are significant because they contain contemporary information about plural marriage in Nauvoo in the 1840s, both of Clayton and of Joseph Smith, for whom Clayton served as a clerk at the time. Clayton’s journals also served as an important source for completing Joseph Smith’s manuscript history.
I think the journals are also of interest because they have not previously been available in their entirety, similar to the recent release of Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book and the minutes of the Council of Fifty.
How did Mark Hoffman’s forgeries affect restricted materials at the Church History Library?
Keith Erekson: Mark Hoffman’s forgeries provided a wake-up call to all professions involved in historical work as he succeeded in deceiving historians, handwriting experts, archivists, document dealers, and criminal forensic document analysts in numerous private and public institutions throughout the country.
The most immediate public impact of the forgeries for the Church collections involved the establishment of a formal access policy.
Internally, the forgeries helped shape thinking about security, acquisitions, and ongoing work activities.
How many sources cited in the Saints series are available to the general public?
Keith Erekson: Every source cited in Saints that is 1) part of our collection and 2) not under copyright to someone else has been digitized, placed in the online catalog, and linked to the endnotes of the electronic version in the Gospel Library App and on the Church’s website.
How does access in the Church History Library compare to 10 years ago? 20 years ago?
Keith Erekson: The last 10–15 years have witnessed a revolution in almost all aspects of our work. We began to store records around the world and systematically digitize our collections. We launched and then upgraded our online catalog to deliver digital images, audio, and video to all interested users.
We released many significant documents from the collection through the Joseph Smith Papers and the Church Historian’s Press. Simply stated, more materials now are accessible to more people in more places than ever before.
Keith Erekson: A variety of factors converged in the 1970s to make the Church’s historical collections more accessible than in previous times. Other developments in the 1980s, including the Hofmann forgeries mentioned above, again prompted limitations on access for a while, causing one historian to describe the 1970s as a “Camelot” era and lament its passing.
I coined the term “pajamalot” to counter this wistfulness for an imagined bygone day. The developments of our present era now allow unprecedented access for people working from the convenience of their own homes at any hour.
What innovations would you like to see the Church History Library work on next?
Keith Erekson: We always have an eye to improvements to make in the short- and long-term future. We estimate that we have digitized about 5% of our holdings, so we are working to expand and accelerate that work. Many of our records are in languages other than English, so we are developing human and technological means to increase what we review and release. We continue to collect records as the work of the Church expands across the earth.
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This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.