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Knowing 'Brother Joseph' - New website provides free access to Joseph Smith Papers project

When William W. Phelps published his poetic eulogy to Joseph Smith two months after the Prophet's martyrdom in June 1844, he declared, "Millions shall know 'Brother Joseph' again" (see Hymns, "Praise to the Man," No. 27). That prediction has long been fulfilled in one way or another, but now, through the power of the Internet, a global audience can become acquainted with Joseph with a degree of intimacy that could have been scarcely dreamed of until now.

Clicking on the document image allows zooming in for detailed exploration of the manuscript and examination of the handwriting. The detail is amazing and informative.
Clicking on the document image allows zooming in for detailed exploration of the manuscript and examination of the handwriting. The detail is amazing and informative. Photo: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

A new website, www.josephsmithpapers.org, is being introduced at the Mormon History Association Conference in St. George, Utah, as this issue of the Church News appears. Church History Department officials demonstrated the new web site at a May 27 session of the conference.

Library of Media and Resources in "Reference" section of new website contains maps, photos and other pictures, such as a portrait of Oliver Cowdery.
Library of Media and Resources in "Reference" section of new website contains maps, photos and other pictures, such as a portrait of Oliver Cowdery. Photo: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.
Clicking on image, such as this portrait of Oliver Cowdery, brings up an enlargement with high-resolution reproduction.
Clicking on image, such as this portrait of Oliver Cowdery, brings up an enlargement with high-resolution reproduction. Photo: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

A companion to the Joseph Smith Papers project, the new website has had an unheralded presence on the Internet in a beta version since last fall and, even now, after its public unveiling, remains a work in progress as various elements of the project are unfolded. The project's intent is to compile, transcribe, annotate and publish all of the known papers of Joseph Smith, including revelations, journals, sermons, correspondence and business documents. The first letterpress (or print) volume in the project was published at the end of 2008; two more have appeared since then and all have been brisk sellers, especially for a documentary editing project such as this.

But the project has been restructured. The plan to publish a total of 30 print volumes over several years has been scaled back to about 20 volumes.

Clicking on the "next" button in the Oliver Cowdery image takes the viewer to the next image in the series, a fragment from the book of Abraham papyrus translated by Joseph Smith.
Clicking on the "next" button in the Oliver Cowdery image takes the viewer to the next image in the series, a fragment from the book of Abraham papyrus translated by Joseph Smith. Photo: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

The same content as initially planned will eventually be delivered to the public, but some of it will be accessible only on the website, which now takes on a more prominent role than earlier conceived.

The website is the repository for all of the Joseph Smith Papers material as it is prepared and published, said Matthew J. Grow, director of the products division in the Church History Department. "The letterpress editions are important but in some ways subsidiary to the website," he said. "There will be more on the website than will ever appear in print, and certainly all the scholarship that goes into the print volumes will appear on the website."

That means someone who may not be able or inclined to purchase a letterpress edition can still be blessed by the availability of the content, free of charge.

And much more will be added as time goes on, said R. Eric Smith, production manager, who estimated that the content currently on the site is less than 10 percent of what will eventually be there.

Demonstrating the new site, Brother Smith pointed out the home page, which displays recently added documents: the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, recording the presence of Joseph Smith in the founding of the Relief Society in 1842; Minute Book 1, which includes the minutes of various Church meetings held in Kirtland, Ohio, from 1832 to 1837; and the first printing of the Lectures on Faith.

Brother Smith pointed out two link tabs at the top of the page, "The Papers" and "Reference."

"The meat of the website is 'The Papers' tab," he said, "which is the documents themselves."

Here, the viewer will find links to various elements in the project, such as a link to the 1832-34 journal of the Prophet. Characteristically, this link pulls up pages that can be read in turn, with a high-resoultion image of the page on the left side of the screen and a faithful transcription of that page on the right, with Joseph's own handwriting designated in boldface. Clicking on the image itself one can zoom in and examine the handwriting in minute detail.

Clicking on the document image allows zooming in for detailed exploration of the manuscript and examination of the handwriting. The detail is amazing and informative.
Clicking on the document image allows zooming in for detailed exploration of the manuscript and examination of the handwriting. The detail is amazing and informative. Photo: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

On the transcription side of the screen, one finds hypertext links to reference information. For example, the journal entry records that Joseph rode from Kirtland to Chardon to see his sister, Sophronia. Clicking on the "Chardon" link brings up a pop-up reference explaining that Chardon in 1830 was a town of about 900 in Geauga County (where Kirtland is located), and that Joseph and other Latter-day Saints occasionally traveled there for legal business. A link on the name Sophronia yields another pop-up note giving biographical information about this member of Joseph's family.

"The amount of research that goes into these biographical entries is great," said Brother Grow, who suggested that it could be a good genealogical resource for people who have ancestors who may have interacted with the Prophet or were members of the Church during his lifetime.

"And there are so many people that appear in these documents," he said. "The Relief Society minute book has the names of everyone who joined the Relief Society, which is over a thousand people. There are so many people who have descended from these early Church members, and it will be a thrill for them to see their ancestors mentioned on a Relief Society list or in a Joseph Smith letter or a Kirtland high council minute book."

Looking below the image, one can read a "Historical Introduction" about the journal and click on a "Source Note" giving information about the manuscript itself.

Going to the "Reference" tab, Brother Smith pointed out that it brings up a set of links to people, places, events and topics in the Joseph Smith Papers.

"These four correspond to tools that are available in our print volume," he said. Corresponding elements in the print versions are a biographical dictionary, maps, chronology and glossary. "It's the same information as in the printed volumes but available at the click of a mouse rather than having to look to the back of the book."

A fifth link on the "Reference" page accesses a "Library of Media and Resources," a collection of artwork, photographs and other media depicting the people, places and events mentioned in the Joseph Smith Papers. It also includes maps, charts and other reference material.

Expected to be expanded as time goes on, the library now includes, for example, an aerial photo of Adam-ondi-Ahman shot in 2000, a 1907 George Edward Anderson photo of the temple lot in Far West, Mo., and a map showing the route taken by Joseph Smith and Parley P. Pratt to recruit volunteers and raise funds for the Zion's Camp expedition of 1834.

Together, the papers and the reference material provide a ready access to what eventually will total more than 2,500 items documenting the life of the Prophet of the last dispensation.

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