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19th Century Joseph Smith Latter-day Saint History

Meet Archivist Sharalyn Howcroft

Sharalyn Howcroft is an archivist and document specialist with the Joseph Smith Papers. In this interview, she shares her background with the unprecedented efforts to document the life of Latter-day Saint prophet, Joseph Smith.

The Joseph Smith Papers Project publishes documents from the life of Joseph Smith—but the team doesn’t collect them. Instead, the Joseph Smith Papers team uses archivists like Sharalyn Howcroft to scope out new manuscripts for inclusion in the groundbreaking academic papers project.

Who is Sharalyn Howcroft?

Sharalyn Howcroft: I grew up in Southern Idaho, then received degrees from Ricks College, BYU, and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. My undergraduate training was in English, so I fell into the archives profession almost by accident. Church history never really resonated with me growing up until I encountered the records themselves, and then it became vividly real.

My passion for records occurred at an early age when my grandmother showed me old family pictures, journals, and artifacts. I have also kept a journal off and on since I was eight years old. I started working on the Joseph Smith Papers (then the Papers of Joseph Smith) in 2000.

My Joseph Smith Papers responsibilities include searching for, acquiring and organizing the documents, researching custodial history, and identifying handwriting.

Your interest in old records was sparked by your grandmother who showed you old family pictures, journals and artifacts. Could you tell us about your grandmother and share a story you recall about her showing you these family heirlooms?

Sharalyn Howcroft: My maternal grandmother is Gladys Millar Evans. She and my grandfather, Erwin Evans, are descendants of early Mormon pioneers. Grandma kept the Evans and Millar family records and photographs in an antique dresser in her bedroom. She reverenced these items.

Once I became aware of the family heirlooms, I wanted to see them nearly every time we visited. Although she only showed me a few things when I was a young child, I was able to handle more items as I got older. She let me and my siblings read the missionary journal of my great-great-great grandfather, Benjamin Brown, who served a mission in the London conference 1853-1855.

I remember being struck with Ben’s testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I was proud to be one of his descendants.

Grandma served in the Northern States Mission from 1926-1928 and met my grandpa there. Her mission photo album contains pictures of several missionaries, including my grandfather, her favorite mission companion, Minerva Boss, and an elder named Philip Jessee.

Years later when my grandparents were deceased and I was working on The Joseph Smith Papers, I found out that Boss and Jessee are the parents of Dean C. Jessee, the founder of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. I continue to marvel at this connection—it strikes me as more than coincidence.

One of your responsibilities is searching for new documents to include in the project. Could you tell us a little bit about how this process works and include an example of a new document you helped identify and procure?

Sharalyn Howcroft: Our search for new documents begins with perusing the online catalogs of repositories with a collecting scope that includes Mormon records. Conversations with collectors and dealers of early Mormon documents yield additional manuscripts in private hands. Some material is found in county records on microfilm at the Family History Library. While we pursue records from counties with obvious Mormon connections like Hancock County, IL, on occasion we find leads on Joseph Smith owned property in counties that are predominantly non-Mormon.

The Joseph Smith Papers doesn’t acquire documents. I am thrilled when new Joseph Smith documents are acquired by any institution. JSP works closely with the Church History Library and passes along any document leads we are aware of to the acquisition team. I regularly consult with specialists in the Church History Library about nineteenth-century Mormon manuscripts to acquire for the collection.

What aspect of your job stretches your skills to their limits?

Sharalyn Howcroft: Handwriting identification is a painstaking process that requires a good deal of observation, mental energy and focus. I can only work for about a two hour stretch before I need to walk away from it. An aspect of handwriting identification is remembering documents with elusive handwriting so that when I come across another document with the same handwriting, I can make the connection.

Uncovering the custodial history of documents can be a bit mind bending because it is rarely straight forward. It’s a combination of understanding institutional and repository history, collection arrangement and description, handwriting identification, authorial intention and production, document transmission and reception, and several other factors. Critical thinking and deductive reasoning play a critical role. . . and I take copious notes.

How was the first volume received in terms of sales and publicity? What was your reaction when you saw the demand?

Sharalyn Howcroft: Most documentary editions sell a couple hundred volumes. The Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, volume one, sold several thousand copies. This is unheard of in the document editing world. Sales projections based on Dean Jessee’s The Papers of Joseph Smith suggested Journals one would sell well.

Its success can be attributed in part to our dual audience. Mormon scholars and historians were interested, but the general church membership has a vested interest in Joseph Smith as well. We were pleased to see such interest in our early history by American religious history scholars, Mormon scholars, and the Mormon community.

In what ways does the Joseph Smith Papers Project team function differently today than when it first began?

Sharalyn Howcroft: Dean Jessee published The Papers of Joseph Smith beginning in the 1989. It was a one-person operation projected to be a multi-volume series. It was renamed The Joseph Smith Papers in 2001 and reconceived by Jessee as a multi-series edition encompassing Journals, Papers, Administrative, Canonical, Historical, and Legal and Business papers.

Since that time, the number of volume and production editors has increased dramatically to accommodate publishing two volumes per year and building a comprehensive papers edition online.

What started as a one-person operation has grown to approximately 50 staff members, researchers, volunteers and missionaries.

Are there any lessons the Joseph Smith Papers team has learned over the first decade that you would apply if given the chance to go back in time and start over? What were some of the bumps in the road at the beginning of the project?

Sharalyn Howcroft: Producing documentary editions takes time. When the project was revitalized in 2000, we anticipated publishing four volumes a year and concluding the project in 2005—the year of the Joseph Smith bicentennial. This production schedule was overly ambitious, as we were unaware of how labor-intensive documentary editing projects can be.

Document transcripts initially supplied for the volumes came from an electronic version of the History of the Church and didn’t represent the manuscripts verbatim; consequently, the documents needed to be transcribed again. Reliable transcripts, like document control, are an essential foundation to any documentary editing project. It’s better to get it right the first time than to have to go back and revisit it.

The older and wiser me would like to go back and tell the younger me to be a bit more thorough establishing document control, even if it seemed like overkill.

In 2002, Mark Ashurst-McGee was hired by The Joseph Smith Papers. His arrival was formative in making The Joseph Smith Papers a documentary editing project. Mark advocated implementing standard documentary editing practices and principles. This not only required well-established historians to learn a new discipline, but also required a systematic overhaul of the content previously published in The Papers of Joseph Smith.

Staff began a serious study of Mary Jo Kline’s A Guide to Documentary Editing and protracted conversations about style and editorial method soon followed. Dean’s expansion of the project, together with discussions of style took several years to fully explore and execute.

Contrary to what some may think, Journals, volume 1, was not a simple repackaging of The Papers of Joseph Smith, volume 2; rather, it was a reconceptualization of the volume from its footings to its rafters.

The project was initially headquartered at the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History at Brigham Young University. Due to overwhelming support from the administration at the Church History Department, the project moved to Church Archives in 2005.

Being closer to the sources was essential to our work and increased our ability to create a superior product. The move was significant, however, because it entailed a substantial remodel of work space at Church Archives, relocating files in Utah County to Salt Lake City, and families moving to different counties. It disrupted our productivity for a time, but was key to the vitality of the project.

Do you think the general public has any misconceptions about the Joseph Smith Papers Project?

Yes. When we talk about The Joseph Smith Papers as a documentary editing project, people automatically correlate it with documentary filmmaking. The Joseph Smith Papers teamed up with Glenn Rawson and Dennis Lyman in 2007 and 2008 to produce Joseph Smith Papers episodes for KJZZ. The purpose was to create public awareness of the project and promote the volumes. Unfortunately, many people had the impression that the TV show was the project rather than an outreach effort for the project.

Another misconception is that we’ve finished publishing the volumes.  The volumes are scheduled for completion in 2022, with the contents of the comprehensive web edition to continue to build after that.

How do you think the Joseph Smith Papers is perceived by scholars associated with other Papers projects?

Sharalyn Howcroft: JSP is generally well respected among other papers project and is frequently referred to as the “gold standard” for documentary editing. The most recent edition of Mary Jo Kline and Susan Purdue’s Guide to Documentary Editing has used The Joseph Smith Papers volumes and website as examples of good documentary editing practices. We are considered peers and scholars by other papers projects and by members of the Association for Documentary Editing.

How has your familiarity with the Joseph Smith Papers affected your perception of Joseph Smith and your testimony of the gospel?

Sharalyn Howcroft: Familiarity with Joseph Smith’s records has profoundly affected my perception of him. He is a more nuanced and complicated individual than I realized at the outset.

In coming to know him on a deeper level, I find him a more compelling person and prophet who was not only a product of his time, but also a man beyond his time. I’m aware of his weaknesses and flaws, yet marvel at what he became through divine manifestations and the tutelage of the Lord.

Words are simply inadequate to describe how it has affected my testimony of the gospel. I reflect on who I was when I began working on the papers project in 2000 and who I am now, and I am an acutely changed person.

The journey has been long and fatiguing at times, but deeply rewarding. I will never be the same.

If today were you last day at the Joseph Smith Papers, what are one or two experiences you would look back upon with the most fondness?

Sharalyn Howcroft: In June 2001, project staff met with General Authority advisers in the Abraham Smoot building at Brigham Young University to receive official approval and endorsement of the project. Elder Bruce C. Hafen, then a Seventy adviser to the Church Historical Department, and Elders Neal A. Maxwell and Henry B. Eyring, Quorum of the Twelve advisers to the department, were in attendance and presciently spoke about the project and what it would become.

As I was taking in the magnitude of this experience, I realized I was one of only two women there and the youngest person in the room. Witnessing the conversation was mind blowing.

In addition to this experience, I will remember with fondness the people and the records. There is something inherently powerful in standing shoulder to shoulder with colleagues united in a cause that is greater than any one of us and that will stand the test of time.

The Joseph Smith Papers will continue to influence discourse about Joseph Smith well after we have died. Participating in a project of this duration and magnitude has forged bonds and friendships that are unique to themselves. These associations have deeply influenced my professional and personal life, and for that I am extremely grateful.

Furthermore, becoming deeply immersed in the records of Joseph Smith, knowing the scribes who wrote them, and being aware of record keeping processes has been a choice experience for me. Although daily exposure to the manuscripts can create a sense of commonplace, I continually remind myself that it is not ordinary. One cannot immerse one’s self in early Mormon records without repeatedly encountering their sacredness and the sacrifice made to create and preserve them.

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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