Keith Erekson and the Scholars of Pajamalot

In a recent interview with Keith Erekson (the director of the Church History Library and a member of the editorial board of the Church Historian’s Press), Kurt Manwaring discussed a variety of topics, including the forthcoming publication of the William Clayton journals, the impact of Mark Hofmann on the Church History Library, and a moniker for the current era for the Church History Library.  It’s an interesting interview, so I recommend reading the full text here, but what follows below is a co-post, covering the highlights with some quotes and discussion.

First things first, the item that will probably be of most interest to many of our readers is information about the William Clayton journals.  There have been several holy grails from the Church archives that historians have wanted to get their hands on but have been unable to do so until recently—the Council of 50 minutes, the George Q. Cannon journals, and the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book being a few examples to go alongside the William Clayton journals.  About three years ago, Matthew Grow caused a stir by announcing that William Clayton’s Diaries were going to be published.  As J Stuart explained at the time: “The Clayton Diaries … [are] one of the best sources to understanding Joseph Smith’s personal life, thoughts, and activities in Nauvoo.”[1]  Erekson also explained in his recent interview that: “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. … I think the journals are also of interest because they have not previously been available in their entirety.”  Concerning when we can expect to see the journals published, Erekson stated that: “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.”  According to the Joseph Smith Papers website, the last print volume of the Joseph Smith Papers should go on sale in 2023, so we can expect to see the William Clayton Diaries sometime after that time.

Most of the remainder of the interview discussed the evolution of openness at the Church History Library and archives over the years.  The Leonard Arrington era has been seen as a high point for openness and transparency for the archives in the past.[2]  Erekson explained that: “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 … again prompted limitations on access for a while, causing one historian to describe the 1970s as a ‘Camelot’ era and lament its passing.”  This created a sense of nostalgia for that era of openness compared to what followed.

Along with internal Church politics and other issues, the Mark Hofmann forgeries were a part of what led to further limitations on access to the archives.  As Erekson stated:

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.

It was an unfortunate series of events all around, even considering that it did lead to important conversations about how to best maintain and protect the Church’s records.

Still, since the time that Elder Marlin K. Jensen was called to serve as Church Historian in 2005, there have been a number of changes that have led to greater access to Church records.  Erekson went on to talk about this:

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.

Looking to the future, he added that:

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.

It’s a lot of fantastic development that have led to a brighter era in Latter-day Saint historical research.

Given the changes that have happened and the greater access to the records, the Church History Library has really come of age.  With that in mind, Erekson explained his moniker for the current era in the library’s history to contrast the ‘Camelot’ view of the 1970s:

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.

Having done my fair share of historical research on the library’s website (some of which has, admittedly, occurred in my pajamas), I can say that it’s not a bad term.

To see more of the interview, hop on over to Kurt Manwaring’s site here.  Keith Erekson discusses more about the work done at the Church History Library, the number of questions they field, and some discussion of restrictions that remain in place (including those that surround general authority documents), so it’s a worthwhile read.

 

Footnotes:

[1] J Stuart, “BREAKING NEWS: LDS Church to Publish the William Clayton Diaries,” Juvenile Instructor, 20 October 2017, https://juvenileinstructor.org/breaking-news-lds-church-to-publish-the-william-clayton-diaries/.

[2] For an incredible view into the era, I recommend Gregory A. Prince’s Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History (University of Utah Press, 2016).

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