A treasure trove of historic documents is now available online as part of an unprecedented effort to bring to light materials related to the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The updated Joseph Smith Papers website debuted at the annual Mormon History Association conference in St. George, Utah, on Friday, 27 May 2011.
The comprehensive website will eventually contain about 2,500 documents used by the Joseph Smith Papers project in creating the definitive collection of records related to the life and work of Joseph Smith and early Mormonism. Some of these documents have never before been available to the public, while others were available only in various archives and libraries around the world.
“This will be the complete collection of extant documents that we have permission to use,” the project’s assistant managing editor Jeffrey Walker said. “There is a power with these documents. There is something magical when you find the original, and now we have the ability to release these images and transcriptions and our scholarship to the great wide world.”
The purpose of the project is to make available every document produced by Joseph Smith himself or by others he appointed as scribes. Similar projects exist for several of America’s founding fathers, but the Joseph Smith Papers is the first of its kind to make all of materials available for free on the Internet. This will provide easy access to the foundational documents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for anyone from scholarly researchers to casual history buffs.
“The goal is to take all that rich fabric of Joseph Smith’s world and use technology to allow it to be looked at from the entire world,” Walker said.
In addition to the website, the project will print 20 physical books divided into six subjects: Journals, Revelations and Translations, History, Documents, Administrative Records and Legal and Business Records. Due to the limitations of printing, not all of the available documents will be included in the books but will be available on the website.
“Our goal was to create a digital library that is not volume based but document based,” Walker said.
Walker said the books and the website will have a very different look and feel. He thinks scholars will still prefer the hard copies, but it is nice that anyone can access the documents without buying the books.
“There is something powerful about having the book in hand, flipping through it as you research, but more people around the world will access it online in the long term,” he said.
Assistant Church historian and recorder Richard E. Turley said many people will probably enjoy the material in both forms.
“When you use both the web and the book, you will get different experience,” Turley said. “Both views offer different insights.”
The format of the website will make it easy to view and understand the historic papers, with the digital image of the original document posted side-by-side with a detailed transcription.
According to Walker, documents will be available on the website before they are printed in the books. That means some of the transcriptions will be posted online after just two reviews by the project team, rather than the three reviews required for the books.
“There will be some interim content that is not yet annotated and vetted,” Walker said. “The documents going online will be what we call second level verified, but we are also giving you the image to double-check yourself.”
The website allows users to browse the documents by category, such as journals, revelations or administrative documents. You can also search by keyword, person or location. For example, you can search for documents about Emma Smith in New York in 1830. Variant spellings have been standardized and linked together. The site also includes information that provides context for the documents, including maps, charts, photographs and biographies.