The Early Saints Research Group is a collection of scholars who are documenting the lives of the early followers of Joseph Smith, Jr. and the Restoration (commonly known as Mormons or Latter-day Saints). Although we have a common vision of one day having a “one-stop shop” for getting information about these early saints, this is not currently a single project or a single database. Rather, we represent a wide variety of independent research projects and are exploring ways to collaborate with each other and to share our data with you.

EarlySaints Summer Meeting

We had a Meeting at the Community of Christ Temple in Independence on July 15th 2016. We had many persons who attended remotely thanks to Map’n’Tour and the Hensons. We had people from Utah CHL & SUU, Virginia, Wisconsin, along with about 10 at the archive. First we went around that group and introduced all of the persons in attendance. Next the Community of Christ Archivist Rachael Killebrew explained that right now they are only open to the public one day a month and that day is determined by the day the first person wants to come. All others must come on that day or wait till the next month.

Dan Kelty introduced his Spreadsheet based on the Community of Christ documents which he wants to update with one more resource (he had just picked it up from them) before he sends a copy to myself and Brandon Plewe for sharing. He is also very knowledgable about the other branches of the restoration movement.

I then did a short presentation on how to use the LDS Church History Library and how to submit requests for digitization, use the Ask us function, Missionary and overland travel databases.

Hope all of you are doing well!

We will be shortly updating our membership with additional members.

EarlySaints III 2016

We had a very successful 3rd meeting yesterday at BYU! This year the focus was on introducing some of the technologies out there that will help our various data projects to work more closely together. We got a glimpse of the new First Century of Missionary Work site from Matt McBride, Laura Anderson, and Kevin Nielson, including how it is connecting to other databases like Overland Travels and how we might connect our data to it. We learned about Linked Data from Tod Robbins, which fosters connections between data on the internet that can be discovered and used by both people and computers. Then Luther Tychonievich discussed his efforts to automatically match people between our various databases, which will enable and strengthen the links among us.

A recurring theme was complimentarity, that each project affiliated with EarlySaints has some aspect that is unique from other projects, and that working together doesn’t make our work obsolete, but allows us to focus our resources on what we are passionate about and less on the research that others are already doing.

We were able to create a video recording of the entire meeting which you are welcome to download if you were not able to be there. It is a raw recording; the audio is occasionally bad (esp. at the beginning), but at least it’s something. If someone wants to clean it up, or cut it up into segments, that would be great.

A final note. Some have expressed interest in having a summer meeting in the Midwest. What do you think?

Technical Work Begins . . .

We had a technical work meeting with Luther Tychonievich, Tod Robbins, and Brandon Plewe yesterday to discuss some issues and strategies for federating (not merging) all of the databases that EarlySaints scholars are working on.

We developed the following short-term (this summer/fall) strategy:

  1. Match Table. A list of possible matches between persons in the various databases developed by EarlySaints participants; each match is an assertion that a person record in one database may be the same as a person record in another (or the same) database. For example, “FamilySearch KWJZ-DLC = Nauvoo Community #22006,” to a given degree of certainty (thus not demanding that we be sure yet). This will be built by some combination of automated data mining and interactive collaboration.
  2. Federated Search. A simple search interface that will look for a person in all of the databases, and return a list of matches (linking to the websites for more information). This will both use the match table, and encourage people to use the found records to add to the match table.
  3. Hosted Databases. Develop a service (or install one like CKAN) to share some of the major databases that are not currently online, thus allowing them to be part of the match table and federated search. At first, we would only do a few as a prototype, but eventually we want to make something where you can upload data yourself.

To develop these, we need as much data as possible. If you have an online person database (not a source transcription yet), would you be willing to give us either a data dump or (read-only) database access? We promise not to republish it and compete with your website. If your database is not online, could we get a copy? We will not make it public if you don’t want us to.

A Vision for EarlySaints

I came away from our February meeting with a slightly clearer picture of what we might do in the near future. This is only one person’s vision, but I have the bully pulpit (this blog), so I’d like to try to explain it. I welcome your comments.

The Present

So let’s start off with what we have now: a few dozen scholars who are documenting the individual early* members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day** Saints, and the Church they personally interacted with (branches, missions, etc.). This documentation is being stored in a variety of ways, including a few large robust web databases, and many smaller lists and files that are not available to the public. None of these are perfect, none of them are “done,” and none of them interact with the others (computationally). Thus, someone cannot get a complete picture of a particular early saint without a lot of work (most likely repeating a lot of work that you didn’t know someone already did). How can we make this work better, eliminating duplication of effort and making our work more useful to the scholarly community and the general public?

The Pipe Dream

Let me start off with the product that it seems we all have in the back of our mind: A single authoritative database of all there is to know about every early saint. Any person (scholar, descendant, etc.) could come to the website and ask, “what does the historical community know about Levi Ward Hancock?” and get volumes of biographical information, including not only the typical genealogical vital events (birth, marriage, death), but his missions and other travels, church leadership positions, branch memberships, journals, and so on.

Unfortunately, we are unlikely to see this product in the foreseeable future, for a variety of reasons: 1) there are important financial, legal, and trust reasons for the separate research projects remaining separate; 2) it would require a level of tight coordination and technical sophistication we do not currently have; and 3) due to the nature of historical research and historical evidence, we are not likely to learn all there is to know about anyone any time soon, let alone everyone.

A (Slightly) More Pragmatic Vision

So, what can we feasibly accomplish to bridge the present situation with some as yet unlikely future? I see three products that could conceivably be built in the next couple years with minimal funding.

  • EarlySaints Federated Database. A website that would simultaneously search the existing databases (FamilySearch Family Tree, EarlyLDS, Overland Trails, Nauvoo Community, etc.) for a given person, and collect and collate the results, with links to the databases themselves for further details. This approach is becoming increasingly common on the Web (think about how your Facebook, Google, and twitter accounts can be linked, even though they are different companies). There are a few technologies that could accomplish this, but it would require us to build a computational interface to each database (like the FamilySearch API).
  • Mormon Lives Database. A database of the facts and events about people that make up a life in the Church, such as congregation membership, priesthood, leadership positions, mission travels, and so on. To date, the existing databases are focused on basic genealogical information (birth, marriage, death), perhaps adding a few common events such as residence, but none adequately deal with church events beyond dates of saving ordinances. Ideally, this database would be able to add this kind of information about early saints without needing to duplicate the information that is already in the existing databases.
  • Small Database Hosting Service. Much of the great work of independent scholars is not available on the web for public research; this includes both “conclusion databases” of biographical information, and transcripts of primary documents. This is usually not because we don’t want to tell anyone, but because we don’t have the means to publish every excel table we construct. This service would allow scholars to not only upload and share their data files, but turn them into searchable databases that can be searched and integrated into the federated database. For example, a general search for a person might connect not just to the major sites, but to that person’s PEF loan or their tithing payments in a branch in Iowa.

Now you’re probably thinking, “Brandon, you’re just proposing additional huge projects that will never get finished.” Yes, but there is a principle that makes some scholarly database projects more successful than others: design the system so it will be useful long before it is finished. Wikipedia and FamilySearch Family Tree will never be “done,” but they are extremely useful and popular as-is. Yes, they have issues with the control of quality (and more importantly, the documentation of quality), but that is an issue we can explore in a future post.

What do you think? Are these products that we should work together to develop? Will they be useful enough to be worth the trouble? Please comment below!

Brandon Plewe

BYU Geography

* We all define “early” a little differently. Some of us are focused on a particular period or place (Nauvoo, Winter Quarters, etc.), but we all seem to agree that the Martyrdom of Joseph Smith is a good first break point. Beyond that, many projects are interested in people through the Nauvoo Exodus (-1846), the Pioneer Era (-1869), the Early Reorganization (-1870s) or even the Turn of the Century (-1899). We probably don’t need to decide where to end it just yet.

** Yes, I know about the Day/-day difference, but this highlights an unresolved issue in Church History scholarship: how to unambiguously denote the church as it existed during Joseph Smith’s day in a way that is fair and neutral to the various denominations that claim to be follow therefrom? EarlySaints includes scholars from more than one of those denominations and we should be able to talk about these people without rehashing the succession crisis. LDS, Mormon, Day, -day, etc. are all loaded words. When we formed in 2014, we thought “EarlySaints” was a fairly neutral term, but this doesn’t solve the issue of what to call the early Church. Thoughts? What did they call themselves?

Meeting Report

With the holiday and all, I haven’t had a chance to report on the all hands meeting we had a couple weeks ago. Personally, I think it was very successful. We had a chance to see a variety of projects that are going on out there. I admit we are a little disorganized still, and we are unlikely to agree on everything, but it was clear that there is a critical mass of scholars with a common goal: documenting the lives of the early members of the Church.

The idea was raised to have another meeting in the vicinity of this year’s MHA conference in Provo in June. If we do that, I would like us to move to the next step with a “get to work” workshop rather than another show-and-tell. Please send me your ideas of what that work might include.