The Microfilm Mission of Archibald F. Bennett
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“The Microfilm Mission of Archibald F. Bennett,” Ensign, Apr. 1982, 69

The Microfilm Mission of Archibald F. Bennett

Soon after becoming secretary of the Genealogical Society of Utah in 1928, Archibald F. Bennett came across a statement made in 1911 by Nephi Anderson, assistant secretary:

“I see the records of the dead and their histories gathered from every nation under heaven to one great central library in Zion—the largest and best equipped for its particular work in the world.”1

Brother Bennett did not conceive at that time how this might be accomplished; a full decade would pass, in fact, before the technology of microfilm would become available as a means to fulfill Anderson’s prediction. But in time, Brother Bennett would become the main impetus behind a microfilming program that would reach to all nations of the world.

Hints that microfilm would be the recording tool of the future began trickling in. “I would watch this. Something may come of it.”2 The note, sent from Elder John A. Widtsoe to Archibald Bennett in the early 1930s, accompanied an issue of Popular Mechanics magazine with an article marked describing a new microfilm camera. At about the same time, Ernst Koehler, a German researcher and photography enthusiast, proposed to the General Board of the Society that microfilm be used to copy the records of his native Germany.3 He also sent a proposal to the highest record officials in Berlin, but no response was received. In 1936, Germany undertook a massive program of its own to film and preserve many of its parish registers.

In late 1937 and early 1938, James Kirkham, a Society Board member, toured Europe in an official capacity to evaluate and set in order the genealogical activities of the missions. He visited archives throughout the continent—and witnessed the German filming program firsthand.

It was time to take advantage of the new technology. A letter dated 12 May 1938 and signed by Archibald Bennett was sent to stake genealogical representatives; it described the potential of microfilm “to obtain copies of inaccessible books in distant libraries; old, rare and dilapidated books and manuscripts which are disintegrating through age or handling; and copies of original, unprinted records such as parish registers kept in the various countries of Europe.”4 Funds were required for such an undertaking, and Brother Bennett encouraged the representatives to secure Society membership dues and donations amounting to no less than ten dollars per ward. The response was heartening but not sufficient. The problem of funding would not be resolved for several years to come.

The Society purchased an Argus microfilm reader in time to demonstrate its use to October conference visitors. In November a camera and processor were purchased, and intensive filming began late in 1938. The initial filming projects were nineteenth century records from the Salt Lake, Manti, and Logan temples.

Filming was not a complicated procedure in those early days. As Brother Bennett recorded on January 5, 1939, “Decided to begin immediately the photographing of the Manti Temple Records. Left at 2:25 P.M. with Bro. Kirby in his car, accompanied by Brother Koehler, the photographer, and his 17 year old son Willie, and with all the equipment in suitcases and boxes. … Arrived about 7 P.M. … Brother Koehler installed his machine in the record vault.”5 A few people, a camera, and a car—that is how it was in the beginning.

World War II temporarily slowed filming ventures, but also served to reinforce Brother Bennett’s argument that microfilming was a good answer to the problem of preserving record content from loss in an uncertain world. The war also increased the demand for microfilm technology, thus spurring the improvement and availability of microfilm equipment and supplies. And in 1944 the Society began to receive direct funding from the Church6—a development that would move the microfilming effort ahead significantly.

Brother Bennett and Ernst Koehler were commissioned to go east in 1946 for the purpose of negotiating new filming projects. The two were granted permission to microfilm a collection of parish registers at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Mt. Airy in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.7 While Brother Koehler filmed at Mt. Airy, Brother Bennett began an exhaustive schedule of visits to historical societies, archives, and libraries in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont in the northeast; and Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia in the south. He explained the Society’s offer to film and provide them a positive copy for the privilege. Very few could refuse such an offer. After the first week of successful negotiations he commented in a letter home, “It seems just like walking through a big orchard with plentiful fruit on every hand, and being able to pick what you want at will.”8

Success, however, was not guaranteed. Some record keepers were simply uninterested. But Brother Bennett would not accept a negative response. His first test came in Maryland; at Annapolis, the state archivist explained that all their records had been filmed during the war and three positive copies printed. Their plan was to send a positive copy to the Huntington Library in California, one to the Public Record Office in London, and the last print and its negative to the Library of Congress. He was satisfied with the arrangement and saw no need for further filming.

Brother Bennett tried several lines of persuasion without success. Could the Society obtain a copy? No. Could the Society make an exchange for records of surrounding states? No. Brother Bennett began to wonder if he had reached an impasse.9

Finally, he presented a letter which granted permission to film the records of New Jersey and explained the work in Pennsylvania where they intended to film in the counties. To his surprise, the archivist began to show interest. It seemed that there were still records in Maryland’s counties that had not yet been gathered to the state’s hall of records. If the Society could film those, perhaps something could be done about getting prints of the previously produced films. The archivist kept Brother Bennett past closing time to work out the details. In commenting on the incident, Brother Bennett later wrote, “It is one of the most important [missions] I have ever performed—pleading our case before these important officials … and to witness how their hearts are softened, even after they know I am a Mormon and our program sponsored by a Church.”10

A week later Brother Bennett was in Connecticut at the state library. The hurdle here was much tougher than in Maryland. Two previous written applications to film at the library had been refused. Upon Brother Bennett’s arrival, the state librarian asked if this was not the same request that had been made twice before. Brother Bennett said yes. “Well, you are quite insistent, aren’t you?” came the response. Brother Bennett answered that he was, then continued: “Thousands of our people, including three Presidents of our Church, have ancestors born in Connecticut. I myself have fifteen or twenty. We shudder to think what would happen to these records if an atom bomb were dropped over the State Library.”11 Brother Bennett’s persistence paid off, and permission was granted.

It must have seemed strange to the proprietors of these eastern archives for a westerner to appear and make such an outlandish offer—to film their records, and at no cost to them! But Brother Bennett was able to convince them that he was serious. He wrote: “Ever present with me is the realization of all the families whose ancestral records are contained in these choice collections. I believe they are pulling for us in our efforts in their behalf.”12 In just over a month, Brother Bennett had obtained permission to film in the central archives of seven states as well as in many county offices of Pennsylvania.

With the projects in the eastern United States barely under way, Archibald Bennett found himself looking even further east—this time to Europe. Pre-war contacts had been made with record keepers in England, Denmark, Germany, and Italy; then World War II had intervened. In 1945 the agent in Denmark, Arthur Hasso, had renewed contact with the Society and in 1946 received a contract to begin filming. The next year Brother Bennett was chosen to represent the Society in Europe to develop prospects for filming. His success would be overwhelming, though not without difficulty.

He arrived at Plymouth, England, in June, and for the next four months traveled in Wales, Scotland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Holland, France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Italy. If his proposals seemed extraordinary in the United States, one might imagine what response a record keeper in a foreign country would have to this stranger from an unknown society in an obscure state on the other side of the world!

A major problem encountered in some countries of Europe was opposition due to disagreement with the Latter-day Saint doctrine of baptism for the dead. This was crucial because most of the valuable genealogical records were of religious origin and controlled by ecclesiastical authorities. Early prospects in England were dimmed when the Archbishop of Canterbury refused permission for the Society to film English parish registers; one of his reasons was the Mormon belief in baptism for the dead.13

In Wales and Scotland, ecclesiastical authorities did not intervene; and, conveniently for the Society, many parish records had already been gathered to central civil repositories. The major objective in the British Isles thus became to get projects under way in these locations.

Brother Bennett and James Cunningham, genealogical supervisor of the British Mission, arrived in Aberstwyth, location of the National Library of Wales, on 22 June for an appointment with Sir William Davies, the national librarian. They were to make a formal request to begin a five-year project—certainly one of the largest microfilming efforts ever to be undertaken in Britain.

Davies was gracious and sympathetic to their request. He even offered to let them use a camera already on order and due to arrive at the library soon. In addition, he offered to be their advocate with officials, both civil and religious, from whom final sanction would be required.

The reception they received three days later in Edinburgh was hardly so cordial. As in Connecticut, early proposals for filming had been refused; even so, Brother Bennett was undaunted. The archivist welcomed them but balked when the proposal to film was renewed; opposition had apparently increased and permission would not be granted.

Brother Bennett suggested one final alternative: Could the filming proceed, if for no other reason than simply to preserve the record content from destruction? The archivist reconsidered; he would at least resubmit the proposal. The answer did not come for five years; but when it came, the cablegram from the British Mission office read, “Rejoice with me! We have received permission to microfilm all the church registers and early census records of Scotland.”14

From England, Brother Bennett traveled in the company of Alma Sonne, European Mission president, to Stockholm. At a gathering of LDS mission presidents from across Europe, Brother Bennett impressed upon them his own deep feeling for the immediacy of the work: “I told them I, too, was speaking in behalf of a mission field—more extensive and including more people than all the other missions combined. Despite the fact that it was under the Presidency of the Prophet Joseph Smith and was blessed with labors of numbers of the greatest missionaries for 117 years, not a single baptism had been performed in that mission. They had made converts, perhaps millions of them, but no baptisms [meaning that ordinance cannot be performed in the spirit world; it must be done on earth by proxy]. For their mission to succeed, the records to identify those in the spirit must be gathered from the nations and sent to the temples.”15

The success in Wales and hopes for Scotland were but a prelude to events following in quick succession. In Denmark, Brother Bennett reviewed the excellent progress being made by Arthur Hasso. A tentative agreement was concluded in Sweden and a contract finalized in Norway.

In the first two months of his European mission, Brother Bennett had negotiated for decades of filming contracts; during the final month and a half he finalized agreements for filming in Holland and the Vaudois parishes of Italy, and negotiated tentative approval for France and Switzerland. His sole disappointment was Germany, where military restrictions made negotiations impossible.

The European venture of 1947 was followed by a second trip in 1948 to conclude undone business of the previous year. Finland, Belgium, and Germany were added to the list of countries in which filming would be done. Success was virtually unlimited.

The 1948 trip also presented Brother Bennett an opportunity to personally participate in one of the filming projects in the villages of the Vaudois in northern Italy. Brother Bennett, along with James Black, microfilmer, and James Barker, French Mission president and his wife, Olive, traveled by car to the remote mountain seclusion of the Vaudois parishes. They soon discovered that the power supply was insufficient to operate their camera except at the central village of Torre Pellice. They set up the operation in a hotel room, converting the clothes closet into a darkroom. Thus began a three-week effort during which 1,476 volumes of parish registers were filmed.

Brother Bennett and the Barkers would travel in the car along narrow dirt roads and cart trails to outlying parishes and bring the records into the hotel where Brother Black would film them. On one occasion the road ended about a twenty-minute walk from the village where the records were located. Brother Bennett ascended the hillside in a pouring rain, bundled seventy-eight registers in Brother Black’s raincoat, and returned down the slope.16

Just before leaving Europe in October 1948, Brothers Bennett and Black witnessed the beginning of the Swedish microfilming effort in the Stockholm City Archives. At that moment filming was in progress in Norway, Denmark, Finland, East Germany, Holland, Switzerland, England, and Wales.

After the 1948 tour, Archibald Bennett withdrew from the microfilming program and returned to his teaching, writing, and other efforts to promote genealogical work throughout the Church. Responsibility for the filming work was delegated to the superintendent of the Society, L. Garrett Myers.

While Brother Bennett no longer actively negotiated for records, he promoted the program in a different way. In 1952 he presented a paper to the Society of American Archivists describing the history of the Genealogical Society’s worldwide filming effort. Later published in The American Archivist, it was the first major publicity given the program through professional channels. The article was followed in 1959 by a shorter one in Archivum, an international archival journal. The effect of this article was substantial. Upon reading it, the archivist of Poland wrote requesting assistance with filming church records in their archives.17 The filming was initiated in 1968, a few years after Brother Bennett had passed away.

Those who visit the Genealogical Society Library today may never hear or see the name of Archibald F. Bennett; indeed, the library little resembles the small, unnoticed collection that he inherited as Society secretary in 1929. But its film holdings have now passed the million mark and filming operations continue in all parts of the world, reflecting the vision of a man committed to building the Kingdom on both sides of the veil.


1. 1939—Manti, Utah

2. 1946—Eastern United States (the east coast from Georgia to Vermont)

3. 1947—United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland)

4. 1947—Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway, Denmark)

5. 1947—Western Europe (Holland, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy)

6. 1948—Scandinavia (Finland, Sweden)

7. 1948—Western Europe (Belgium, Germany, Italy) (Illustrated by Warren Archer III.)

Archibald F. Bennett. (Photo courtesy of Church Historical Department.)