Using Multiple Technologies to Deliver Relevant Records to Particular People
Keith A. Erekson, Director, LDS Church History Library

Public historian Sheila Brennan rightly observed that “public digital humanities work requires an intentional decision from the beginning of the project that identifies, invites in, and addresses audience needs in the design, as well as the approach and content, long before the outreach for a finished project begins.” This case statement presents recent initiatives in the LDS Church History Library in Salt Lake City as an example of using multiple digital technologies to deliver the right records to the right persons, even at times when the recipient did not know that she needed the record.

My Particular Public, My Library (and Me)

I’ve always found it more helpful to attempt to serve particular publics rather than a general one. The Church History Library is the institutional archive for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a faith with nearly 16 million members living in countries around the world who speak more than 100 languages. Daily religious practice among Latter-day Saints engages history in multiple ways. The Church itself was organized in 1830, and the histories of its founder Joseph Smith and of its founding scriptural texts (of which The Book of Mormon is most widely known) provide the basis for how members develop and nurture their faith. Each week adherents re-enact a ritual sharing of bread and water with an explicit charge to remember Jesus. Sunday and weekday classes for youth and adults routinely teach the ancient and modern histories of the Church. Each year every local congregation prepares a history of its activities.
Individual members are encouraged to keep diaries to prompt mindful reflection; they write autobiographies to pass on to children and grandchildren; they gather genealogical data about their ancestors for use in sacred temple rituals. As a member of the faith community, I participate in sacred rituals, I have been assigned to compile the congregational history, and I have taught the Church’s history as a missionary to those exploring the faith and as a Sunday school teacher of youth. As an academically-trained historian, I have also taught about the Church and its history to non-Mormon undergraduate history students in a public university and to LDS doctoral students from multiple disciplines.

The Church History Library operationalizes its mission to collect, preserve, and share the records of the Church. We gather and store records—more than 240,000 archival, manuscript, and oral history collections with more than 270,000 print and rare items—in 26 locations on 6 continents. Access and preservation strategies are centrally managed. A portion of our records are not for external distribution, as we comply with international copyright and privacy laws and respect the confidentiality of corporate and priest-penitent settings. Yet, our online catalog
provides multi-lingual access to more than 10.7 million images, a number that grows at an average rate of 307 images per hour and is guided, in part, by patron digitization on demand. Some of our records, such as the historical papers of Joseph Smith and of early Mormon women, undergo transcription and formal documentary editing. We collaborate with other work units that manage a museum of history and art, historic sites from the Church’s 19th-century history, and genealogical research. We have employed a variety of audience research methods— focus groups, segmentation analysis, persona development, true intent queries, usability testing—to better understand our audiences. We serve internal influencers who make historically-informed decisions, speak to the entire membership, and develop Church products and curriculum. We assist systematic researchers, including academics, journalists, and advanced genealogists. And we seek to improve the quality of historical engagement of Church members. The desire to touch the lives of individual members prompted us to think beyond traditional outreach invitations to “Discover the Church History Library” in search of a personalized connection.

From Records to Database to Targeted Email

Our goal of connecting Church members with historical records operates in a world of realities. One of the things we have learned about Church members is that they prefer interpreted histories—exhibits, stories, or videos—to the “raw” records in our collection. Further, our online library catalog is neither intuitive nor a destination. And, our members are more active on mobile devices, especially internationally. So we decided to focus on Church members who were engaged in genealogy work with a goal to encourage the use of records in our collections as sources for their family history findings.

The first phase of the initiative involved creating a database of missionaries who had served during the Church’s first 100 years, from 1830 to 1930. For the later 70 years of the span, missionary service had been recorded in a series of “Missionary Register” volumes that we scanned and then shared with FamilySearch, the LDS Church’s genealogical organization.
FamilySearch’s indexing volunteers transcribed details about every name. For missionaries who served from 1830 to 1860, we assembled a team of approximately 55 modern-day missionaries who researched to identify individuals from period manuscripts and periodicals. In February 2016, we launched the resulting Early Mormon Missionaries site, a searchable database of more
than 38,000 missionaries that provides information about individuals, direct links to digitized sources in our catalog, and historical contextual information. The announcement drew attention, increased website traffic, and led to additional record acquisitions.

For the second phase of the initiative, we partnered with FamilySearch to inform living persons that one or more of their relatives was documented in the database. We cross-checked the names in our database against the 1.1 billion names in the FamilySearch Family Tree, a crowd-sourced database that allows registered users to submit information about ancestors and relatives that gets combined into a single master data file. As a result, we identified 1.4 million users whose relatives matched the metadata in our missionary database. Our partners at FamilySearch created a campaign that sent emails in June 2017 to the appropriate users that contained information about the relative (including a photo where possible) and invited recipients with a single click to go to the relative’s entry in the database. The campaign was designed for mobile devices, employed a/b testing to identify the most enticing subject lines and message formats, and solicited interactive feedback.

As a result of the missionary database campaign, unique visitors to our website spiked tenfold to hit 109,000 on a single day. Unique visitors to the digital records in our online catalog more than tripled, including an initial spike, a new and higher steady plateau, and subsequent peaks of activity around missionary records. Just less than half a million visitors went to FamilySearch’s Tree on a single day (one of their top three days in visitor traffic history) and many of them linked the primary sources in our database to their relative’s record. Qualitative feedback revealed Church members using their finding of a missionary relative in their family interactions as well as in Church settings, such as in teaching and congregational speaking. A surprisingly large number of participants reported that they had thought they were a new convert or the only member of their family in the Church and were thus surprised to learn of a relative active in the faith. The long-term impact of this identity shift from newcomer/outsider to long- timer/insider will play out throughout their lives.

In the end, the missionary database and email campaign digitized records and placed them online, built a tool to increase relevant access to those records, informed more than a million individuals of personally relevant records, changed the behavior of thousands of people, and influenced the identities of many participants.


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