Submitted the following to the Church History Library:
Please state your question
What is the complete list of items, resources, and books held by the Church in its vault? What is the complete list of items, resources, and books not publicly accessible or (to this point) not known to exist by the general public?
If that list cannot be released (for some reason or other), can you provide me with an estimate of the number of books or journals that are currently being held but which are not publicly accessible or currently unknown by the general public?
The Church has recently been pushing for increased transparency, so it seems like this kind of question may now be asked with some hope that it may be answered.
Places already looked
Some googling on the topic, but nothing authoritative could be found :(
I submitted and received the following immediate reply:
Your query, request, comment or information has been logged with our service and will be addressed by the next available staff member. It has been assigned the number CH73849. Please record this number for future reference.
[June 27, 2017]
Response to CH73849
Our response is:
I apologize for the delay in responding to your request. The question you are asking may not have been answered in the past, not because the department was trying to hide anything, but because there is no easy way to answer it. A report could be run easily enough to produce the numbers of collections currently coded to “open” and the number coded to “closed,” but that would not give you accurate information. There are a few reasons why.
- Before any item can be opened to the public, it needs to be reviewed for content that is considered sacred, private, or confidential (SPC). (For more information about that, click here.) You’ll find that any archival institution around the country has similar policies. In decades past, the cataloging practice with any newly acquired item was to do just the bare bones cataloging (author, title, a few subject headings, etc.) so it could be searchable in the catalog, but then to close it to the public until a more thorough review of content could be done. Usually those items just remained closed to the public indefinitely until someone requested access to them. At that point, the review was done and the item was either opened to the public or remained closed because some form of SPC was found. There are still a lot of items in our collection that are coded as “closed”, not because there is any issue with them, but because they simply have not been reviewed and completely processed. We are still working through those as we receive requests for them.
- In the past, if an item was coded as “closed” because SPC was found during the review process, the entire collection would have to be closed because there was no way for us to make only portions of it available. For example, lets say someone donated a collection containing correspondence, journals, photographs, etc. of their great-great grandfather and in one of the journals, he dedicated a half a page to giving a detailed description of one of the temple ordinances. Because the items were all cataloged as a single collection, in any report we run, that collection is going to show up as closed, even though the journal is the only thing that we would restrict. We have similar issues to collections on microfilm only. If a single item on the film has an issue, everything on the film has to be closed. It’s been a real issue until the last several years. Recently, our developers have given us the ability to redact specific portions which has alleviate the problem. Now we can go in and digitize that entire collection, redact the few sentences that talk about the temple and open the entire rest of the collection to the public online. There are a lot of items in our collection like that. We simply have not gotten to the digitization and redaction process for all of them.
- Sometimes items are closed only for a certain period of time. For example, when we do oral histories or collect personal journals occasionally the donor will ask us to restrict the item for ten years until after his/her death. It is not our choice, there is no SPC content, but we have to honor the donor’s wishes. We don’t yet have a systematic way of changing the coding for those items those restrictions expire. We change them as we come across them or as they are brought to our attention because a patron is requesting access to them. Having said all that, even if an item has been reviewed, and the record is up to date and it is still closed to the public, we still allow people to request access to items that we have determined should be closed indefinitely. They need to explain why they need access and what they are going to do with the information, and of course, sometimes the answer is still ‘no’, depending on what it is, but more often than you would think, permission is granted in one way or another.
So, I could run a report and give you the raw numbers, but those numbers would be such a wildly inaccurate representation of how much of our collections are truly accessible to the public that I’m not going to do that. However, if there is anything in our collection that you are interested in specifically, and you are having difficulty accessing it, please let us know. We can explain the reason for the restriction, determine if that restriction is still valid, make adjustments, if necessary, and do everything we can to get you the information you need.
I hope that helps.
[Librarian's Name] Reference Librarian Church History Library