As I’ve tried to study the history of Mormon literature, I’ve realized that we are currently are in a oddly mixed situation. By and large what Mormon literature has been produced through the past 175+ years is easily available to anyone with a good Internet connection, a basic computer and the ability to read and understand English. But when we move to criticism and compilation of this literature, the wonderful new archives of material might as well not exist. Is anyone working with these old texts?
If you think I’m talking about Google Books, let me disabuse you. While a good portion of what has been published in the past is available there, it isn’t really the largest or best place to find Mormon lit. Instead, a handful of archives have more important and better organized archives that are often easier to use and less dependent on whether the literature has been published as a book.
In terms of archives, the documents a researcher in Mormon literature might want to see can be divided into three categories: books, periodicals and unpublished manuscripts. Google Books consists of mainly the first—it does not have manuscripts in general, and the periodicals it has are those that have been bound as books at some point and which appear in one of the libraries that Google has partnered with. Since neither BYU nor the Church’s library are Google partners (I doubt Google ever asked them to be), many unique Mormon materials simply don’t appear there.
Instead, these two archives have taken somewhat different approaches to making materials available. BYU has created its own digital collection that includes a lot of Mormon books, periodicals and manuscripts. The Church’s library, which finally put its catalog online a couple years ago, also does this to an extent (items can be found from their catalog entries), but has mainly used the Internet Archive to upload a stunning amount of material, including the full run of many church periodicals that were previously unavailable and also including materials in many foreign languages.
There are additional resources, but these contain the vast majority of what is available online. And if an item is not available online, often the library that does have them available is now willing to make a scan of the item for you and send it to you for a small fee. The Church History Library will do this for any document that it doesn’t consider sensitive or that might be damaged in the process or restricted by copyright, others also have occasional restrictions to avoid damage or because of copyright.
But if we look at the process of compiling lists and categorizing this material, studying it, etc., I’m not sure we can be nearly as pleased with the progress made so far. As far as I know, we have one anthology that covers the history of Mormon literature, Cracroft and Lambert’s A Believing People, and that is long out of print. While there have been more recent anthologies, they only cover contemporary works, not historical works. The BYU Mormon Literature and Creative Works catalog is helpful, but it sure seems like it has stalled. The Mormon Arts Wiki also doesn’t seem like it has caught on as an alternative. Even the wonderful Mormon Bibliography (which isn’t specific to literature) isn’t adding new material discovered. And if you want to figure out what criticism has been written about a work of Mormon literature or how a subject is seen in Mormon literature? I don’t know of any way other than brute force searches for the title of the work in a variety of databases.
Perhaps I’m being unnecessarily harsh, given that the source of the problem is that few people even write about Mormon literature at all, and most of them look only at recent literature. I hope that is right, and someone can set me straight.
In addition, I would like to ask perhaps a good question. If someone wants to launch a serious overview of Mormon literature, what works should they read? The Cracroft and Lambert anthology should be on the list, of course. And I think that Givens’ People of Paradox should also be included. I believe that there are a few good articles in the various academic Mormon periodicals, such as Eugene England’s overview Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects, but I’m not sure that anyone has compiled a list. What do you think should be on the list?