Where Are the Records?

Elise Reynolds, Church History Library consultant
19 February 2019

In this post Elise Reynolds describes some of the reasons why the Church History Library might not have the records you are looking for.

The Church History Library has hundreds of thousands of records in its collections—so many records that it seems impossible that we wouldn’t have just the record that you need. But despite our best efforts to collect and preserve diverse and robust records, there are times when we don’t have the document that solves the history riddle our researchers have been wrangling with for years.

Why don’t we have all the records? There are several reasons why you might not find that key document here at the library.

The record was never created.

First, it may be that the records you need were never created. For example, while birth certificates are standard to us now, in the state of Utah they were not required by law until 1898. Before that, they simply were not created. Illiteracy, lack of access to record-keeping materials, and a lack of emphasis on official documentation all led to the absence of records. And if a record was never created, it can’t make it to the library.

Left: The record might never have been created. Right: Flooding in Mt. Pleasant, Utah, 1918.

The record was misplaced, forgotten, or destroyed by a disaster such as a flood or fire.

Second, it may be that the records were lost before they could be given to the library. Many records are destroyed by floods, fires, and other disasters. It’s possible that a ward historian took records along by accident when he or she moved to a new neighborhood. Some records may even still be hiding in your local chapel, just waiting to be found and submitted!

The record is in another institution.

Third, there are many institutions that collect and archive records. Record creators or keepers may choose to donate their records to another repository or even keep them in their possession. One example of this is Utah territorial records. Because Brigham Young was the first territorial governor during his tenure as President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, early government records were intermingled with Church records. Some of those governmental records, such as territorial censuses, can be found in the Church History Library’s collections. The Utah State Archives house other records from the territorial period, like court proceedings and assembly records.

Sometimes an individual has ties to multiple institutions and chooses to donate his or her papers to other repositories. For example, collections of materials created by James E. Talmage during his lifetime are preserved at Brigham Young University, the University of Utah, and the Church History Library. The collections in archives are typically related to certain subjects. Because Talmage was associated with all these institutions, his papers would incorporate areas of interest to one but not another, and so materials may have been donated to the repository most appropriate for them. (It is also worth noting that it is not required to donate your papers to a repository.)

Left: Letter from James Edward Talmage to John Taylor, 1886. Right: James Edward Talmage.

Records are retained by family. 

A fourth possibility is that the records were retained as a family heirloom. This is most common with blessing, baptism, and ordination certifications and mission call letters. These documents are all created solely for the individual concerned, and copies are not sent to Church headquarters. Information about blessings, baptisms, ordinations, mission calls, and so on is recorded by the Church in a different format. These records are retained by the library, and while you probably won’t be able to find a certificate, you may find the demographic information you are looking for.

The record was created but isn’t accurate or complete.

A fifth possibility is that the records were created and submitted to the library, but the details you are seeking were not recorded. Many record keepers are in a hurry and write only the essential information. Or perhaps through human error, they missed a few entries. Records are only as good as the record keeper.

Further, the record-keeping processes of the Church have evolved over time. Ward histories are an excellent example of this. In the past a general history, general minutes, and minutes from each of the auxiliaries were sent to Church headquarters. This practice has changed, however, and currently histories are submitted as annual reports from the stake or district rather than from each ward. As a result of these changes, the type of information that is available or recorded from year to year has changed.

Even though the Church History Library is the records repository for the Church, we may not always have the records you need. It is up to each one of us to keep our own record of our lives. Joseph Fielding Smith, 10th President of the Church, wrote: “Every important event in our lives should be placed in a record, by us individually [emphasis added]. … If you have accomplished something worth while during the day, put it down; it may be of use to posterity.”1 By following his advice, you can help researchers of the future find the records they are looking for.

Not finding the records you are looking for? Use the Ask Us button on our website to contact a librarian. We may be able to help!