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.
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!
* 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?