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Church historian and recorder offers ways to preserve important historical documents

Elder LeGrand R. Curtis Jr. points to how documents, photos and other family artifacts can be stored and recorded and also ways to ‘keep records going’

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Elder LeGrand R. Curtis Jr., executive director of the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, talks beside a copy of Doctrine and Covenants 11 handwritten by Hyrum Smith at the Church Administration Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 30, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News


When the time capsule in the Salt Lake Temple capstone — the ball that Angel Moroni statue stands on — was opened, Elder LeGrand R. Curtis Jr. was excited about what could be in it. It had been sealed for 128 years — from April 6, 1892, until May 2020, when it was opened. 

“We had a list of the things that were supposed to be in there, and we were really quite excited about the possibilities,” said Elder Curtis, a General Authority Seventy serving as Church historian and recorder and executive director of the Church History Department. “For one thing, it said there was a photograph of Joseph Smith. Well, there are no known photographs of Joseph Smith. So, if there really was a photograph in there, that would be a real find.”

[Note: Since Elder Curtis’ statement, recorded in a recent Church News podcast, the discovery of a possible photograph of Joseph Smith has been made public.]

But water had seeped into the temple’s rock time capsule, damaging anything that was paper. 

“​​So, the books that were in there, whatever photographs were in there, did not come through in very good shape,” Elder Curtis said in the Church News podcast. “And we, frankly, don’t know if there really was a photograph or if it was a photograph of one of the paintings of Joseph Smith. We know of several of those.”

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President Russell M. Nelson, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, looks over items from The Salt Lake Temple capstone time capsule in Salt Lake City on Wednesday May 20, 2020.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Members of the First Presidency had wanted to see the time capsule opened. Elder Curtis said that “there was a lot of mush in there, a lot of, just things that were weathered.”

But there were some things that were preserved. 

“The curious thing, what did come through well were the coins that workers threw into that time capsule,” he said. “So, it’s kind of funny, the official things that were put in there didn’t come out very well, but we do have some interesting pieces of history, with the coins that were put in there, including some that were specifically, specially engraved to be thrown in.”

Based on these experiences with the time capsule and other historical artifacts, Elder Curtis shared ways people can store important records, photos and artifacts in their lives. 

Location, location, location

The Church History Library has multiple storage vaults with environmental controls — 10 that are kept at the ideal temperature for preserving paper records and two that are kept below zero. 

While more people don’t have that kind of control over conditions in their homes, Elder Curtis notes that people should be conscious of where records are stored. 

“Sometimes a really hot attic may not be the best place to store something or a basement that floods from time to time, and so it is a really good thing for us to keep our records in a way that they’re going to last for a long time,” he said. 

Digitizing records

“We migrate the records to the latest technology so that we digitize the paper records; we migrate recordings to more current kinds of technology,” Elder Curtis said “It would be hard if we just left everything on reel-to-reel tapes.”

While those tape players are still available, “it’s a lot better if you can migrate them to a more available way that you can record those things.”

The Family History Library offers free scanning and media conversion.  See familysearch.org/en/family-history-library/library-services for information. 

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Elder LeGrand R. Curtis Jr., of the Seventy, and President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, look at a typewriter while touring Joseph F. Smith’s private office in the Beehive House in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Backing up and organizing records

Elder Curtis has seen where people have changed phones and lost their photos, too. So backing up digital documents and images in a central location is valuable. 

And to not just assume that it’s in an email and won’t ever get deleted.

“Now, the modern age gives us all kinds of challenges, because we used to get all our communications either just from talking to somebody or on a piece of paper,” he said. “Now, they’re electronic in email systems where they get deleted after a while. And if we’re not careful, we will lose some treasures that will be meaningful to us later in our lives and to generations to come.”

When organizing records, think about how documents, photos, videos and other records are accessible now and then to future generations, Elder Curtis suggested. 

“Being wise about the records that you keep and by that I mean, certificates of baptism, or ordination, or graduation from seminary, graduation from high school, key letters that we receive, having a way that we can, in essence, keep some preservation,” he said. 

Photos

Find a way to note details about photos — who is in them, the event and date, etc. 

“One of the other things that happens with photographs is people will take a picture at an important event, years go by and you look at it and you say, ‘Well, I recognize Aunt Maude, but who are these other people?’” Elder Curtis said. “So, a few notes about who it is in the photograph, or a little more detail. It’s amazing how things that you think you will never forget, you get a little hazy about some of the outer edges, some of the surrounding circumstances.”

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Books found by Church History Library Conservator Emiline Twitchell in the Salt Lake Temple capstone and time capsule in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 14, 2020.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

‘Keep records going’

In addition to taking care of the family records people may have, to also “find a way that you can regularly keep records going,” Elder Curtis said. 

There have been some “great journalists” in the Church who consistently wrote in a journal, such as Wilford Woodruff, who “had an entry for every day from about the time he joined the Church until shortly before his death,” Elder Curtis said. “That is a terrific resource for us.” 

“But some people just find they can’t write everyday. So, for some people, it’s a Sunday activity to go back over the week and make a note of the things that happened,” he said. 

Also, when Elder Curtis was released as a bishop, he noted in a little book some “end-of-my-term-of-service entries, like, key people that I had been involved with, great events that had happened, and it’s funny looking back,” he said.

He tries to do those summary kinds of entries about a time of service or the end of a year and look back and say, “‘OK, these were some of the great events’ that otherwise get lost to the mists of memory that you think, ‘Well, how did that really happen?’ and, ‘Well, how did I feel at the time?’” he said. “I think capturing those kinds of experiences proved to make a real difference.”

Another kind of record that people contact the Church History department about are people who find a late relative’s journal and there are notes from the prophet at the time was speaking to a group. 

“We’ve got hidden in all sorts of places information, because people bothered to take a note or note to a spiritual event in their life,” Elder Curtis said. 

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