In the archives

By: J. Stapley - September 26, 2006

Somehow, you don’t think it should be as casual as it is. You walk through the doors of the Church Office Building and next to the giant mural of Christ teaching his disciples is an unassuming door. Only a small sign noting that no packages are allowed beyond hints at the tension of decades.

I scan the names of those who have already signed in and find a notable author as I flash my own ID. I spend the morning assessing the patrons, trying to discern him from the rest. How he talks to the staff or how he turns his manuscript with white gloved hands. I have my own treasures to find, though, and slowly loose myself in the poorly illuminated microfilm images.

You wouldn’t find La Vern McLellan Lloyd anywhere in the published histories of our people. Obscured by time and place. She did, however, dictate an account of important life events to her daughter. She was one of the refugees from Mexico in 1912. With sickness and death following her family, they moved north to find work in the mines and then finally further to a job teaching school. They moved in the winter and had nothing. They went hungry and cold.

I read her story. The part where she could not walk. The prophetic dream. How she was healed in the temple of our God. The details of her healer. And I wept. I had to turn from the text because I couldn’t control myself.

Just then, the missionary that minds the document room approached me from behind and asked if an item that I had left on the table belonged to me. I turned to acknowledge that it did and she noticed my face.

“It looks like you’ve found something good.”

“Yes,” and I turned away again until I could face the text.

15 Comments

  1. It’s too bad we don’t put ourselves in the position to have this kind of experience more often. I’ve read some of my ancestor’s histories and had similar feelings. I need to do it more often.

    Thanks for sharing yours and reminding us all.

    Comment by don — 9/26/2006 @ 5:54 pm

  2. Though “loose yourself” (ie. se dechainer) in the archives may accurately capture your enthusiasm and the Archivists fear, I think you mean “lose yourself” (se perdre) :)

    Comment by Ben — 9/26/2006 @ 7:33 pm

  3. Actually, “loose” was the verb of choice. I thought about changing it because it was so close to “lose,” but then I thought that the closeness was interesting :)

    Comment by J. Stapley — 9/26/2006 @ 7:46 pm

  4. J., were you at the Archives today? A young guy came in commenting about the changes since he had last been there and asking about the diaries of Patty Bartlett Sessions, and for some reason I wondered if he might not be a blogger whose visit I would read about soon.

    If that was you, the author you noted is there three or four days every week and is very approachable, if you have any reason to want to chat with him. Come again. Come again anyway.

    Comment by Ardis — 9/26/2006 @ 8:16 pm

  5. Thanks, Ardis! Actually I was there last week (wed-fri) and would come frequently if I lived even remotely close.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 9/26/2006 @ 8:27 pm

  6. J,this post was so touching. I have been in lots of great archives like the National Archives of Canada or the Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia, but I love the Church Archives the best for the many reasons that are alluded to in this essay.

    Comment by kris — 9/26/2006 @ 9:15 pm

  7. Hmmm – Now you’ve got me searching my memory to figure out who you were. There are so few new visitors to the Archives, aside from patrons looking for copies of patriarchal blessings, that they are usually easy to keep track of. And the author I guessed you had seen was hiking in eastern Europe last week, so that wasn’t him.

    Anyway, I’m tickled to read your post, and not just because you had such a moving experience. The Archives just may be the best kept secret in the church, and most of the gossip believed by denizens of the internet about how restrictive everything is simply isn’t true. It’s nice to hear about somebody who had the far more common experience of success and connection, and who described it so beautifully. Any Latter-day Saint with an extra hour or two in Salt Lake and an interest in their heritage should come by and see what’s available.

    Comment by Ardis — 9/26/2006 @ 9:25 pm

  8. I’m sad that I didn’t get to meet you, Ardis. Perhaps next time? Ask Ron, he will be able to place me in the Archives.

    I also very much agree with that the archives are quite open. They have been wonderful to work with long distantly, and the new digitization is truely God sent.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 9/26/2006 @ 9:46 pm

  9. J, thanks for the touching story. While I have not spent time there (which I regret), my Mother has spent countless hours there. She has had many amazing experiences in the quiet confines of the Archives.

    Comment by C. Swinton — 9/27/2006 @ 4:51 am

  10. I love the archives. I love the peace and serenity of the setting. There is no fanfare just the quiet resolve of people who want to mine the richness of the past. I have had some of my most profound spiritual experiences while in the archives sitting in the poorly lit room with the whiz of other microfilm machines and the banter of those working or searching. A couple of timesI have broken the stillness with a cry of “yes” as something that I have been looking for has suddenly come on the screen. It’s sacred ground to me.

    Comment by Heidi Swinton — 9/27/2006 @ 5:39 am

  11. Thank you. This last time, there was an abundance of “YES” moments (though I was able to control myself and not disrupt the other patrons). My new goal is to retire as soon as possible and get a condo in downtown SLC so I can hang out in all the archives in the state (LDS, BYU, USU, UU, etc.).

    Comment by J. Stapley — 9/27/2006 @ 11:24 am

  12. J. it was great to sit in there for a few minutes with you. It feels wonderful in there, like any library. And unlike the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid, sitting in there didn’t cause a headache from tons of second-hand smoke! (Though I would never pass up an opportunity to dig in those archives again either.)

    Comment by john f. — 9/27/2006 @ 1:02 pm

  13. I also love archival work, though I am new to it. I would add that almost anyone is within arms reach of some arhive that is waiting to be mined. It may be the state archives, a university archives, or those of some orgaization that cares about its history, and many of them would have information on church history in that area, if that is the primary thrust of your particular research. In fact, they might have that treasure no one else would think to look for because you are searching in less obvious places.

    Comment by Steve H — 9/28/2006 @ 4:32 am

  14. That is a good point, Steve. That is the real hard work, though. The wonderful thing about the Utah archives is that there is so much good fruit on the low branches.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 9/28/2006 @ 12:45 pm

  15. I didn’t know the archives were open to anyone wanting to get in and have a peek? Cool!

    Comment by Wade — 10/4/2006 @ 12:25 am

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