Digitizing Church History

“Digitizing Church History,” Ensign, Jan. 2006, 77–78

Digitizing Church History

While Church historians, archivists, and librarians plan for a new Church History Library in Salt Lake City, they also face another task—transitioning into a digital age in which information from libraries and archives is stored and accessed without physical walls.

In 1995, as users began to use the Internet more widely, Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles described the future of storing information online: “This is an age of digital information. Our computers have become windows through which we can gaze upon a world that is virtually without horizons or boundaries. Literally at the click of a button, we can browse through the digitized libraries of universities, museums, government agencies, and research institutions located throughout the world” (“Windows of Light and Truth,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 75).

The Church has already begun to use the Internet to increase access to its library, museum, and archives for people all over the world. Information previously available only in Salt Lake City can now be found online through interpreted and database Web sites.

Interpreted Sites

While many historians and archivists digitize millions of pages of documents, the Church’s digitizing efforts are more targeted. Steven Olsen, associate managing director of Church history in the Family and Church History Department, said the Church digitizes documents and information to be packaged around a theme and posted online in what are called interpreted sites.

Brother Olsen said interpreted sites help members find useful information by the way the sites are organized. “For someone who is not versed in historical research, an interpreted site helps him or her get information much quicker,” he explains.

Two recent examples of interpreted sites are www.josephsmith.net, a new Web site about Joseph Smith, and “Rembrandt: The Biblical Etchings,” an online exhibit from the Museum of Church History and Art.

Brother Olsen said joseph smith.net includes the most reliable information about the Prophet’s life and ministry. Visitors can view information by theme or go to the resource center to find a specific fact, quotation, painting, photograph, or virtual tour listed under one of 26 topics.

The site was launched in mid-July 2005 with more than 10,000 visitors viewing its pages on the first day. The site currently averages almost 2,500 visitors per day.

“Rembrandt: The Biblical Etchings” is the 10th online exhibit created by the Museum of Church History and Art. Robert Davis, senior museum curator, said online exhibits increase the number of visitors who can view the museum’s collections beyond the almost 400,000 museum visitors in Salt Lake City each year. He said online exhibits are of most benefit to members living outside the United States, who may never have the opportunity to visit.

“The farther away you get from Utah, the harder it is to come to the museum,” said Brother Davis. “But you can see what the Church is about through these sites.”

Database Sites

Interpreted sites are only the beginning of attempts to use the Internet to increase access, Brother Olsen said. The Church also uses database sites to display historical records online.

An online index from the Church History Library shows the differences between a database site and interpreted site.

The Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel, 1847–1868 Index contains the names of individuals and companies that crossed the plains between 1847 and 1868. Unlike an interpreted site, the index displays a catalog of information. The index includes a search engine and displays information contained within the collection. Unlike an interpreted site, an index is not typically designed to preselect information around a theme.

Online database sites are tools that can be used for a variety of reasons, including research and family history. www.familysearch.org is a database Web site that includes a search engine for census, vital records, and international genealogical indexes.

Preserving History

Interpreted sites and database sites help librarians and historians increase access for patrons. They also help archivists preserve original documents. When these documents are digitized and made available online, they are handled less frequently, extending the life of the original document.

Creating digital documents isn’t without challenges. Every 10 years, advancing technology dictates that digitized documents be moved to a more current electronic medium. However, archivists and librarians agree that increasing access to members throughout the world is worth the trade-off.

“Clearly we recognize that the Church’s library, archives, and museum have extraordinary resources that can bless the lives of members and others around the world,” said Brother Olsen. “We recognize the Internet is going to be the means to accomplish wider access for members.”