The Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is often referred to as a corner stone of religion for Latter-day Saints. Wilford Woodruff, the fourth president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is said to have been “the most important journal keeper in Church history.”
By way of technology transcription, the Wilford Woodruff Foundation aims to “digitally preserve and publish Wilford Woodruff’s eyewitness account of the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ from 1833 to 1898.”
Jennifer Mackley, executive director and co-founder of the Wilford Woodruff Foundation has authored several books and borne persistent witness of Woodruff’s contributions to our modern-day understanding of temples, revelation and the Restoration.
“He joined when there was just 3,000 members of the Church … We look back on those times and think, ‘Oh, there’s the Word of Wisdom. There’s temples. There’s Priesthood ordinances. There’s Priesthood authority and keys, but they had to learn every one of those, and it was truly revelation,” Mackley said.
Woodruff converted to the Church in his 20s and died at the age of 91. This means historians have to track down decades' worth of written correspondence.
During his lifetime, Woodruff chronicled the details of Church history as it revolved around him, even recording in his journal how many letters he sent and received each day.
Foundation CTO Mark Pollmann asserts that Woodruff’s thorough record-keeping is the best way historians can gauge how many of his writings exist.
"I'm kind of thinking if Wilford Woodruff lived today, he’d probably be a computational mathematician or a statistician because he was very much into noting things like, ‘Here’s how many letters I wrote today and here’s how many I received. Here’s how many talks were given and here’s how many minutes people spoke today,’” Pollmann said.
While we only have access to between 7,000–8,000 of these letters today, the journal tally shows there were close to 39,000 letters sent or received that used to be in existence.
Woodruff’s avid notetaking, letter-writing, and journal-keeping greatly supplemented the written records of Joseph Smith which are being compiled for a sister project — The Joseph Smith Papers.
“The Joseph Smith Papers has set a standard internationally that is higher than any other papers project … They are very different projects, but the result is adding to the body of truth. The more witnesses you have to an event, the clearer the picture becomes, and Wilford Woodruff is that second witness if not third or fourth witness of those events that are in the Joseph Smith Papers,” Mackley explained.
The Wilford Woodruff Papers also differ from the Jospeh Smith Papers because it is geared toward the general public and much more dependent upon AI.
Most people rely on digital search tools over hardback books to discover information. As the project progresses, all of Woodruff’s works will be searchable online. This also allows for digital source linking instead of static paper footnotes.
Under the direction of Brigham Young University economics professor Joe Price, a project team of about 55 students like Tim Palmer and Paul Smith deal with coding firsthand in the university Record Linking Lab.
“I’m excited to make those writings (his journals, his letters) more searchable. I’m also excited for the way in which the technology will be used to unlock other records and make them searchable and make it possible for people to find things about their ancestors in letters and other diaries,” Price said.
The project team is beginning the transcription process with existing technology. Detectron 2, an object detection code developed by Facebook, is used for segmenting, the act of digitally splicing words in a sentence into individual boxes.
“First, when a page of Wilford Woodruff’s journal is fed into a computer, the computer looks at it and it segments out each individual word, and then it gives us a bunch of little, tiny images, each of just one word, and then we take a handwriting recognizer and run each snippet,” Palmer said.
Palmer and Smith have been able to foster a friendship since April of last year, each growing in their individual appreciation for Woodruff and enjoying the visual fruits of their labors.
“Our whole team effort is to create the deep learning models and algorithms that will hopefully be able to automatically transcribe all of the images. If we succeed at this, we’ll actually be able to cut out that entire section of having people go in and try to transcribe everything manually,” Smith said.
To help with transcribing all of Woodruff’s documents, the Record Linking Lab works in conjunction with a transcription group in Ghana called Source Hive under the direction of Ryan McFadyen.
“When you want to use artificial intelligence or machine learning, essentially all you're doing is using a bunch of math to tell a computer what is what. And then, based on the knowledge you’ve given this computer on what is what, it’s able to take new unknown things in the future that are similar and make a prediction about something,” McFadyen said.
To Prosper Addy, a contributor from Ghana, the project is domestically known as the Family Search Project.
“This was actually a learning process for me. I learned a lot of stuff with the collaboration part because we were working like a team, so it also helped us to work together on the project to get a good result and then make the clients happy,” Addy said.
While the project team is handling a lot of the materials, most are not focusing on the messages within the documents. That’s where the content team comes in.
“As people have transcribed documents, they’ve noted things that really struck them or stood out to them — the gems so to speak — either on Wilford Woodruff’s insight or just a perspective that they had never had before on an event in Church history,” Mackley said.
The project is on schedule to be completed by 2030.
According to a foundation news release, “Wilford Woodruff recorded his eyewitness account of the Restoration of the gospel in his journal and other documents using not only English written in longhand, but also two varieties of shorthand, the Deseret Alphabet, sporadic Latin and Greek and more than 3,000 unique symbols.”
These nuanced languages are used in a small percentage of his written exchanges, so historians and tech contributors have resolved to use the Pareto Principle and focus primarily on the letters that are most apparently in English.
While most of our writing will not have as prolific an impact, prophets have emphasized personal journal writing for centuries.
“It’s amazing the things that we can learn because of him. It must have taken some kind of prophetic insight to try to figure out what things future generations are going to want to know,” Smith said.
Woodruff’s personal journal entries reflect his belief about the importance of record keeping, especially about the spiritual moments of our lives.
On September 6, 1856, Woodruff wrote, “We are not apt to think of the importance of Events as they transpire with us but we feel the importance of them afterwards[;] we are living in one of the most important generations that man ever lived on Earth & we should write an account of those important transactions which are taking place before our Eyes.”