Richard Turley, managing director of the LDS Church's Family and Church History Department, acknowledged in November he had read excerpts of the journals as part of an investigation to determine if they belonged to the church. The admission came during discussions between Utah State University and the LDS Church over ownership of some documents Arrington gave the school.
Days later, representatives of Utah State and the Arrington family announced resolution of the dispute, bringing negotiations with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to a halt. Instead of the nearly 60 percent of the collection initially sought by the church, the agreement was for the university to return a mere half-box of documents to the Arrington family. The family then turned that material over to the church.
The LDS history department has since placed its microfilm copy of Arrington's journals in a "secured facility" to which neither Turley nor his staff has access.
Carl Arrington said he is disappointed with the church's "apparent breach of the deed" signed by his father, who died in February 1999.
"If the church can't abide by the agreement, the microfilms and all copies of his diaries should be immediately returned to the family," Arrington said in a telephone interview from his New York home.
Archivists interviewed by The Salt Lake Tribune said there are no hard-and-fast rules for handling so-called sealed or restricted documents, and one, in fact, agreed with Turley's interpretation.
Turley told The Salt Lake Tribune that his staff routinely reads restricted materials donated to the church's archives and makes copies for the department's internal use.
"The term 'restricted' means restricted from the public," Turley said. "If you are talking about doing it internally, I don't think that would be unusual." In Arrington's case, though, the historian specified on an Aug. 25, 1982, acquisition sheet documenting the gift that "use of [his] diaries and Xeroxing and duplication of same is restricted to everyone until 25 years past the death of the donor."
Arrington did not sign a section of the document allowing an exception to the church's staff. Instead, he wrote in "No. I assign no rights to the Historical Department."
Neither Utah State University officials nor George Daines, attorney for the Arrington family, would discuss the church's handling of the journals. Daines said Arrington's journals, which USU will make available to the public in 2009, don't contain "some big bombshell."
"I haven't read Arrington's journals. But Susan [Madsen, Arrington's daughter] has reviewed them and hasn't found anything that might be troubling [to the church]," he said.
While Arrington was the church's historian from 1972 to 1982, he surrounded himself with professional historians and student interns who published hundreds of articles for church magazines, research papers and books. But several church leaders challenged Arrington's work as not being sufficiently faith-promoting.
A historical department official, whom Arrington later referred to in his memoirs as a "spy," regularly examined the group's publications, highlighting "controversial" paragraphs and forwarding them to church leaders. The pages were placed in a special file on "questioning liberals" kept by church security, according to Arrington.
Eventually, LDS Church leaders dismantled Arrington's team and released him from his position as church historian. Arrington continued writing Mormon history to the end of his life, documenting his experiences in his journals; he produced one journal each year until his death.
He gave the church a microfilm copy of the journals and donated the originals to USU, in both cases restricting access for years--a decade for the university and 25 years for the church.
Policies governing access to restricted documents vary, archivists say. David S. Zeidberg, director of the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., said restrictions placed by donors typically apply to the public, not library personnel.
Other archivists, however, say restrictions often do apply to library staff. "The simpler the restrictions the better, because it gets confusing," said Charlotte B. Brown, archivist at the University of California, Los Angeles, which has a large film and television collection. "But if donors feel they have a good reason to restrict something from library staff, we'll abide by their wishes."
Several Utah archivists and scholars also have grappled with when it is permissible for library staff to view materials that are restricted from the public.
Stan Larson, director of manuscript collections at the University of Utah, says if a donor stipulates the materials are closed only to the public, library staff may sort through and organize a collection before stowing it away. But if a donor wishes materials sequestered from everyone, he said, librarians would not touch them.
For example, Mormon historian Davis Bitton donated his diaries to the U. around 1985 but sealed them from public and staff access. A few years ago Bitton took the diaries back because he wanted to write an autobiography, Larson said. "The boxes were tied with a string," Larson said. "Never once did anyone in our library have a look at them."
Library staff would never make copies of sealed materials and show them to others, as the LDS Church did. To do so, he said, would be "absolutely wrong, unprofessional and dishonest."
Utah State officials clearly understood the restrictions placed on Arrington's journals meant they "were not open for either staff or faculty to look at," said Ross Peterson, a USU emeritus professor of history and a member of the negotiation committee in the Arrington case.
The school would not even review the journals in the fall to help assess disputed documents, he said.
Both USU and the LDS Church "should be sensitive to the restrictions placed on the journals," he said. "We seem to have different interpretations of our mandate."
On Friday, Turley said his decision to allow reading and copying of the Arrington journals was to determine if the church had any claim to those in USU's possession.
Before mid-October, when USU opened the collection to the public, church staff argued that portions of the journals were created at Arrington's office, that they included official minutes of meetings and that church employees may have assisted in their production, Turley said.
After reading through the journals, the staff member, who Turley declined to name, issued a report that included excerpts from the diaries.
Turley then concluded that the church "should not pursue return of the journals to the church in spite of raised concerns about potential ownership," he said. Still, Turley shared the report with several top LDS Church officials, all of whom read it.
They agreed with Turley's recommendation not to request that the journals be returned from USU.
It was not until Turley told the negotiations committee that he was familiar with portions of Arrington's journal that he learned the family viewed the church as having violated the deed of gift.
"That's a different but reasonable interpretation of the document and, recognizing that, I am happy to adopt that opinion of the interpretation and to treat the materials accordingly, which we have done," Turley said.