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The Original Book of Mormon Manuscript: From Analog to Digital

by Brian Simmons, Book and Paper Conservator

The first copy of the Book of Mormon was a handwritten manuscript transcribed by various individuals as Joseph Smith dictated the translation of the golden plates. The Church History Library is now working to digitize that original manuscript, both to preserve it and to make it more widely available.

Background

In October 1841, Joseph Smith placed the original Book of Mormon manuscript in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House. It remained there for more than 40 years, until it was found and removed by Lewis Bidamon, Emma Smith’s second husband, who was making renovations to the house. Environmental conditions in the cornerstone were less than ideal, resulting in extensive damage to many of the pages of the manuscript. In the 1880s, Bidamon showed and distributed the surviving pages to various individuals.

No one knows exactly how many pages were in the original manuscript because many of the surviving pages are only fragments, but word-count estimates suggest that only about 28 percent remain. The majority of the known pages are held by the Church History Library and by the Wilford Wood Museum in Bountiful, Utah. The University of Utah has a small fragment in its collection as well. The remaining known fragments are held by various private collectors and individuals. Substantial efforts have been made to preserve the existing pages.

Multispectral imaging system with a manuscript fragment ready to be captured

Conservation Efforts

The leaves in the Church’s possession were sent to the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) in 2004 for conservation treatment. During a preservation attempt years earlier, the leaves had been Barrow laminated, a process now known to speed up the degradation of paper. After multiple acetone baths, the pages were freed from lamination. They were then lined with thin Japanese tissue and encapsulated between sheets of polyester film.

Image of a fragment as it would be viewed with the naked eye under normal circumstances

In 1991 the fragments held by the Wilford Wood Museum were taken to Brigham Young University for conservation treatment. At some point, those leaves had been wrapped in cellophane and stored at the bottom of a plexiglass box, resulting in significant damage. After being carefully unwrapped, they were humidified, flattened, lined, and encapsulated.

The work done to preserve the physical manuscript over the years has made possible the next step in preservation: capturing digital images of all available manuscript pages. The Church History Library is still working to obtain access to all known portions of the manuscript for digitization.

Image of a fragment momentarily exposed to a specific frequency of UV light

Multispectral Imaging

The Church History Department is using multispectral imaging (MSI) to capture high-resolution images of the manuscript pages at isolated frequencies of ultraviolet, infrared, and visible light wavelengths. The majority of the original manuscript has faded to illegibility, but because it was written with iron gall ink, the ink fluoresces, or becomes more visible under a specific UV wavelength. MSI technology has allowed the identification and isolation of a specific UV frequency, which has refined legibility in the digital images of the manuscript.

To capture the high-resolution digital images, approximately 300 isolated, light-frequency shots were taken of each leaf. This required around 30 minutes of capture time per leaf. The total number of leaves captured so far is approaching 150, the majority of the known leaves. Additional leaves will be captured as they are loaned to or acquired by the Church History Library.

Image further enhanced in post-processing to increase readability

What’s Next?

These images will be published in volume 5 of the Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers. The online version will provide additional access, including naked-eye images and raw MSI data.

Technological advances in the fields of both conservation and digitization have expanded access to historical materials in significant ways. Similarly, the preservation of Church History Library collections, both physical and digital, has resulted in profound and enduring research opportunities. The Book of Mormon manuscript imaging project is a prime example of this.