A new website aimed at making the entire content of the Joseph Smith Papers project accessible online free of charge in interactive form is being introduced this weekend.

The new site, www.josephsmithpapers.org, will be formally unveiled at a Friday afternoon session of the Mormon History Association Conference in St. George, Utah, by Elder Marlin K. Jensen, LDS Church historian and recorder, and three of his associates in the Church History Department.

Since last fall, it has had a quiet presence on the Internet as a beta site while developers cleaned up glitches and generally readied it for its public debut.

That debut is part of a general restructuring of the Joseph Smith Papers documentary editing project, initially conceived as the publication of 30 letterpress (or print) volumes, three of which have been published so far by the Church Historian's Press and distributed by Deseret Book Co. The intent of the project is to compile, transcribe, annotate and publish all of the known papers of Joseph Smith, including his revelations, journals, sermons, correspondence, business documents and other papers written by him or by others under his direction.

But since its inception, the project has been restructured. The plan now is for a total publication over the next several years of 20 published letterpress editions with the website playing a more prominent role.

"We will still deliver all that great material but on the Web in a very efficient and cost-effective manner," said Patrick Dunshee, manager of marketing and communications for the Church History Department. The changes, he said, are for the benefit and blessing of the project and the scholars and church members who are served thereby.

In an exclusive Mormon Times interview, he and two of his colleagues, members of the project team, discussed the new website and demonstrated some of its features recently at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City.

"The restructuring, really, was to put the website as the central repository for what we're doing," said Matthew J. Grow, products division director in the department. "The letterpress editions are important but in some ways subsidiary to the website. 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."

Indeed, all of the Prophet's papers will eventually be published on the website, amounting to some 2,500 unique documents, said R. Eric Smith, production manager. These will be viewable on the screen with a photographic image of the manuscript document on one side and a transcription of that document on the other side.

"Before this website was available, if someone had wanted to access all these documents, they would have had to come here, they would have had to go to the Community of Christ archives (in Independence, Mo.), they would have had to go to the Huntington Library in California or to the Yale University Library in Connecticut," he said. "And a lot of these documents they could never have gotten access to because they are not researchers and don't have the right permissions."

Moreover, the content will always be free to everyone, Smith said, contrasting that with other documentary editing projects in which printed volumes normally cost $100 or more.

Joseph Smith Papers letterpress volumes are competitively priced and have proved to be popular. "But we might sell 40,000 to 60,000 copies of each, if we're fortunate," Smith said. "With the website, you don't have to buy a whole volume; you can access just one or two documents, if you prefer."

Like the printed volumes, the website is directed primarily to scholars and, secondarily, to LDS Church members. "The quality standards are the same," Smith said. "The same people are doing the website as are doing the printed books. It's just a different way to deliver the content."

That said, the content will be greater on the website. The print publication has been scaled back to 20 volumes, but all 30 of the volumes initially planned for print publication will be on the website.

"It's a major commitment by the church and by the Larry H. Miller family who are helping to fund the project," said Smith, who noted that at any given time, five to eight employees are working on the website.

"And compared to similar documentary editing websites, in terms of both quality and the technology involved, the Joseph Smith Papers website is really spectacular," Grow said.

Visitors will observe this as they access the site and go to the "Papers" tab, what Smith characterizes as the "meat of the project," the documents themselves. Here, one sees links to the seven series in the project: Documents, Journals, Administrative Records, Revelations and Translations, Histories, Legal and Business Records, and Other Contemporary Papers.

Clicking on the "Journals" link, one is taken to links to journals from 1832 to 1839, later journals, and an assortment of related materials, such as introductory text published in the letterpress volumes.

Going to the link for the Prophet's 1832-34 journal, one sees a digital scan of the cover the journal, with Joseph's own signature.

Moving to the first page, one sees his handwritten words:

"Joseph Smith Jrs Book for Record Baught on the 27th of November 1832 for the purpose to keep a minute account of all things that come under my obsevation &c— —

oh may God grant that I may be directed in all my thaughts O bless thy Servent Amen"

The words of each page may be easily read, because they are transcribed on the right side of the screen with Joseph's own handwriting designated in boldface type.

Clicking on the image itself, one can zoom in on the handwriting and view it in minute detail displayed in high resolution.

From the home page, the website visitor can click on the "Reference" tab, which pulls up a set of four links to people, places, events and topics in the Joseph Smith Papers. A fifth link, "Library," grants access to interesting pictures, such as a modern aerial photograph of Adam-Ondi-Ahman in Missouri and 1907 George Edward Anderson photo of the temple lot in Far West, Mo.

Of course, with computer technology, the Joseph Smith Papers content is electronically searchable with speed and convenience not possible in a printed volume, with links from text to glossary terms, biographical notes, place names, etc.

"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," Smith noted.

Beyond the boon to scholarly and casual research, the website brings a personal connection to history heretofore not possible for most people.

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"I think there is a real power for people to confront the documents firsthand," Grow said. "I think it's powerful for people to be able to look at Joseph Smith's revelations in the original handwriting in which they were recorded, or to read some of the early letters from Joseph Smith or look at some of the minute books and get a sense of the early church meetings. I think it's really powerful for people to do that in a way that only a very small fraction of church members have ever been able to do up to now."

Email: rscott@desnews.com