Finding Letters and Photographs in the Church History Catalog

by Ed Riding and Brittany Alleman Ayers, Church History Library
15 June 2021

Learn about significant improvements in the metadata in the Church History Catalog and how it will help you find letters, photos, and other collections more easily.

It’s increasingly common to speak of metadata today, surrounded by technology as we are. For example, when a photo gets posted on social media, it often includes information like when and where the photo was taken, as well as the names of people appearing in the photo. That contextual information is metadata. All of that metadata provides helpful descriptions, and it makes these materials more easily findable in the future.

Metadata is essential in our work as a library and archives. As archivists obtain and process new collections, they conceptually group the materials by format (correspondence, journals, photographs, etc.), and then they may subdivide the materials by other criteria such as date range, family, or organizational group. The collection and its subcategories are described and tagged by archivists at the collection level and the level of its subcategories, known as series and subseries. These descriptions and tags point researchers to collections that might be useful in their exploration, but because of time constraints, it’s impossible for catalogers to describe hundreds of thousands of individual items. Hence, researchers typically must investigate many folders of unidentified materials to find items that are relevant to their interests. Imagine how the research process would be accelerated if there were a way to add metadata to each item in a collection. What if every letter or photograph could be searched by the names, dates, locations, and topics connected to that item?

Now, thanks to new catalog technology and the efforts of many dedicated staff members and volunteers, item-level metadata are being added to many more collections in the Church History Catalog, especially photograph and correspondence collections. Rather than finding collections that might possibly contain a useful record, researchers are able to find nearly 140,000 specific letters, photographs, and more directly related to the name or place they search.

Say, for example, a researcher is looking for correspondence written by John Cottam.1 In this screenshot, the researcher has already searched for “John Cottam” and has narrowed the search results using the “Digital” and “Correspondence” filters located on the left-hand side of the screen:

A screenshot of the Church History Catalog. Note the search terms (“John Cottam”) and the selected filters.

As can be seen by the small number next to each filter, using the filters can significantly speed up your search by eliminating irrelevant results. Thanks to new item-level metadata, it is much easier to discover individual letters. In fact, prior to these enhancements to the Church History Catalog, letters like this may have been findable only by reading through every page in a given series.

Here are some examples of significant “upgraded” collections in the Church History Catalog:

Brigham Young Office Files

Signatures on a letter by Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Orson Pratt, Willard Richards, Wilford Woodruff, George A. Smith, Amasa Lyman, and Ezra T. Benson.2

The Brigham Young office files, 1832–1878 collection (CR 1234 1) includes 13,000 letters sent to Brigham Young and the First Presidency during his tenure as President of the Church. These incoming letters are searchable by author’s name or topic. Additionally, the Church’s historical collection holds 23 volumes (17,900 pages) of letterpress copybooks3 from Brigham Young’s outbound letters and telegrams. A team of missionaries, historians, and other Church History Department staff members has begun to index the outbound correspondence. Once complete, this project will enable researchers to follow the trail of Brigham’s correspondence, incoming and outgoing, to more easily see how he responded to requests from Church members and the community.

Susa Young Gates Correspondence

Susa Young Gates’s patriarchal blessing, as found in the Susa Young Gates papers collection (MS 7692).

In 2020, library staff members and volunteers indexed over 19,000 letters in the Susa Young Gates papers (1870–1933) collection (MS 7692), a rich source of historical Church information for the years between 1870 and 1933. A project of this size would normally take multiple years to complete, but with the help of missionaries and volunteers who were unable to perform their usual duties due to COVID-19 restrictions, it was finished in just a few months—an example of the Lord helping us make the best of difficult circumstances.

Missionary Calls Correspondence

Missionaries departing from San Francisco at the time of the historic earthquake and fire of 1906 request new missionary certificates after losing their missionary papers and luggage in the Great San Francisco fire. 4

In 2019, a team of missionaries analyzed and indexed 35,299 letters from the First Presidency missionary calls and recommendations (1877–1918) collection (CR 1 168), which consists of newly called missionaries’ responses to mission calls extended between 1877 and 1918.

This year, our missionaries and volunteers will complete a complementary collection: Missionary Department missionary papers (1888–1928) (CR 301 28). This collection includes responses to mission calls; the genealogy forms that prospective missionaries were asked to submit at the time of their call; and missionary recommendation forms submitted by bishops, stake presidents, and other Church leaders. When this collection is complete, it will add approximately 18,000 letters, recommendations, and genealogy forms that can be searched by name. These letters will also become individually linkable sources in the Church History Library’s Missionary Database (1830–1940).

Other Correspondence Collections

This Parley P. Pratt letter includes a hand-drawn sketch of what would later be named Parley’s Canyon.5

Over the past three years, we have been able to create searchable metadata for thousands of letters from the collections of John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow, the Church Historian’s Office, the Deseret Museum, the early Salt Lake Stake, Heber C. Kimball, Orson F. Whitney, Levi Richards, A. Elmina Shepard Taylor, Hyrum Smith, Bathsheba W. Smith, Emma S. Woodruff, George Q. and Martha T. Cannon, Abraham O. Woodruff, Zina Card Brown, Orson Pratt, Parley P. Pratt, Andrew Jenson, Sidney Rigdon, Emily D. P. Young, Frederick G. Williams, James H. Martineau, and many others. To date, more than 80,000 individual letters and telegrams have been cataloged, making it far easier for researchers to explore the rich collections of the Church History Library archive without stepping foot in the library building in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Photograph Collections

Franklin R. Smith’s (son of Joseph F. Smith) 1908 postcard to his sister shows a picture of what the docks in Liverpool looked like during his mission.6

We have also been able to create descriptive information for nearly 38,000 photographs. These come from the Charles W. Carter, George Edward Anderson, Frank Goulty, Edward Martin, and C. R. Savage collections,7 as well as portrait collections, private photo collections, and Church historic sites photo collections. These include the collections of Richard T. Haag, Lester J. Robbins, Bathsheba W. Bigler Smith, George Albert Smith, Brigham Young, David O. McKay, and Belle Spafford, as well as collections from many geographic regions.8

We also have many photographs from historic Church missions. For more information on finding these collections, please see “Historic Mission and Missionary Photograph Collections” in our Featured Collections series.

We are grateful to the dedicated volunteers and missionaries who have helped make this enhanced searching possible. These are exciting upgrades to the Church History Catalog—and we will continue to improve the Church History Catalog’s collections in the future using the best tools available. We invite you to explore the catalog using these new features; we hope that finding your sources will be easier than ever.

Top image: “Two unidentified older women, each wearing Rigby Stake Old Folks ribbon, 1914 August 5” (PH 7435), part of the George Albert Smith photograph collection.