Review: Slimmer Almanac Cuts Meat

An almanac is not literature, of course, but is a reference work, so few people sit down and read it cover to cover. Instead, we grab an almanac to find the answer to  some question–usually factual and historical questions like when did something happen, how large is something, how many are there and were there, where is some landmark, etc. The key to its value is how often it has the information needed.

As a result of this need to be valuable, Almanacs have expanded every year, adding more information to reduce the likelihood that users won’t find the answer they are looking for. When they are reduced in size, it is with careful attention to what information is useful to its audience.

In the Mormon context, this begs the question: “What information is useful to LDS Church members?”

For many years I have been collecting the annual (biannual for most of the 1990s) Deseret News Church Almanac, and my collection is nearly complete (I’m missing 5 volumes out of the 35-year run). It has been very interesting to see how the almanac has changed over time–how the editors have balanced what information is practical to collect with what is useful and with what most Church members are comfortable with. Early editions included information about notable Church members and those in the news–Mormons in sports, business, government, etc., all had their accomplishments noted in the almanac then, but that information was soon eliminated. Later editions expanded tables of information on states and countries into detailed listings on each, complete with area histories, listings of stakes in that geographical area and the number of wards and branches, stakes and districts and missions and temples in the area. The amount of material on the General Authorities and General Church Officers of the Church has also increased over time, especially in the last decade or so.

Despite the fact that some changes in the almanac occur each year, I was shocked at the changes in the 2009 version of the Almanac. The latest version is much slimmer, only 336 pages compared to 672 pages in the 2009 edition. This was achieved by cutting an entire major section of the Almanac, the state by state and country by country information (now represented by the summary statistical table that has been in every edition). Last year this information required 318 pages–virtually all of the pages cut. Other material was also cut–the list of Book of Mormon translations is gone, and the historical chronology has been pared by about 25%, largely by eliminating non-LDS events meant to put the LDS ones in context–although some LDS events were also eliminated, such as the Church’s 1919 support for prohibition. (remembering this is evidently no longer valuable?)

A little material has been added. Pages about General Authorities increased from 97 last year to 115 this year and pages about Temples increased from 69 to 76. It also maintained a 32 page full-color front section on glossy paper introduced last year to carry the highlights of the year. And somehow, despite the fact that the almanac doesn’t carry information about individual Church members who are not leaders, this Almanac maintains a list of LDS summer olympians (which appears in years following a summer olympics).

To me, the elimination of the state-by-state and country-by-country information is a radical change. It is the part of the Almanac that I use the most. I had actually expected this information to be expanded by including state-by-state information for Brazil and Mexico (and perhaps other countries as well) in order to demonstrate the growth of the Church in those areas. I’ve longed for this information, and a more international view of the Church, for several decades now.

This reflects, of course, my own interest and bias. It is possible that most of those who purchase the Deseret News Church Almanac don’t want this information, and want the information about General Authorities and temples that are the bulk of this year’s edition. Perhaps the extra weight and size of the Almanac is something they don’t want, along with the additional cost to print those pages. But, if the latter, I think they are somewhat deceived. Despite cutting the number of pages in half, the cost of the Almanac rose this year from $14.95 to $15.95.

In contrast, the The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2009 is $12.99 and has 1008 pages.

13 thoughts on “Review: Slimmer Almanac Cuts Meat”

  1. Yeah, I use the almanac at least weekly, and I find myself regularly ignoring the latest issue and reaching for the next oldest. It’s the state-by-state, country-by-country that I use, far more than anything else. What a shame.

    Your title has a double meaning: Not only was the solid center of the book cut out, but the volume is now almost as thin as a knife and able to cut your dinner steak.

  2. Interesting, Kent. Any idea how many other denominations publish a similar almanac, and what features those include?

    From the changes you describe, it sounds as if the perceived purpose of the almanac has shifted from “quick information reference” to (for lack of a better term) “promotional.”

  3. Nick, I’ve seen a Catholic one – although I didn’t look to see if it was published by a Church-owned organization. I have had the idea that I should look and see what other Church-specific almanacs cover.

    I’m not sure that I’d put it as a shift from “quick information reference” to “promotional” because I can’t see how biographical information about General Authorities or Church Officers is “promotional.” I’ve wondered though, if it isn’t part of the tendency to put the GAs on a pedestal in recent years. While I respect and honor them, I’m not sure that the Church should be focused so much on birthday celebrations for them and minutia about their lives.

    My own suspicion is that much of the change is about how much effort it takes to maintain these areas. Information about various parts of the world takes a lot of effort to compile, much more than updating the changes to the General Authority information does.

    Of course, I wish that there was a Mormon Almanac that covered the Mormon people instead of the Church — which Mormons were in the news during the year, what marks Church members made on history, who won what titles in sports, served in what positions in government, etc. To me, that would be much more useful and fascinating.

  4. I wonder if there’d be a market for that kind of Mormon Almanac. Although I doubt that a more mass market/popular one could still sustain the research needed to include the country-by-country info.

  5. .

    I’ve wondered though, if it isn’t part of the tendency to put the GAs on a pedestal in recent years. While I respect and honor them, I’m not sure that the Church should be focused so much on birthday celebrations for them and minutia about their lives.

    This has been getting under my skin too. I find it quite discomfiting.

    Of course, I wish that there was a Mormon Almanac that covered the Mormon people instead of the Church — which Mormons were in the news during the year, what marks Church members made on history, who won what titles in sports, served in what positions in government, etc. To me, that would be much more useful and fascinating.

    One of the Skousens published such a book, but I believe it was a one-shot. That would be a good project for Mormon Time to take on. It’s really just an extension of what they already do.

  6. Skousen’s book is The Skousen Book of Mormon World Records and Other Amazing Firsts, Facts, and Feats. I’m underwhelmed by it, though. It is so poorly organized and scatter-shot that its almost useless. Skousen seems to have no criteria for what constitutes a useful inclusion — everything, no matter how trivial, is included.

    So, I can’t recoment it.

    I do agree that an Almanac basically needs to be done by a news organization, because they seem to have the data. But given what they print every day, I wouldn’t want the Mormon Times to do it…

  7. I’ve wondered though, if it isn’t part of the tendency to put the GAs on a pedestal in recent years.

    That’s actually part of what I was getting at with “promotional,” Kent. I don’t think that tendency is just from the members upward. Rather, it appears to me that the tendency is actively encouraged by the LDS church as an institution.

  8. Nick, I agree. The only thing I’m not sure about is where within the hierarchy it is coming from. Most of the GAs with whom I’ve had personal interaction don’t seem like the type that self-promote or that think building monuments to their own name in this life is a good thing. This makes me hope that this cultural move is coming mostly from those just below them, the employees in the Church who are NOT GAs. Of course, the GAs aren’t really opposing it.

    That is my hope (based on no real evidence).

    My own feeling is that naming a building or anything else after someone in this life makes me uncomfortable. I’d prefer to wait until they have passed on. And I am slightly annoyed by anyone presumptuous enough to arrange for buildings and things to be named for them. Its bad form.

    So please, if you want to name something after me, DON’T TELL ME ABOUT IT!!!

  9. I suspect that the attempt to highlight GAs more in recent years has something to do with the fact that there are so many more of them, and a perceived need to help Church members come to know who they are.

    It used to be that any mostly-active member pretty much could recognize all the GAs and even put names to most of the faces. Who among us can do that now? I can’t help but think that’s one of the reasons why there’s more emphasis on GA-written material in the Church magazines as well. There’s a sense that if we don’t ever know or get to hear from them, how can they be filling their apostolic (in the broad sense) calling?

    All of which said, I too mourn the cutting of the state-by-state etc. data from the Almanac. It helped us to know who we are. Has anyone inquired as to whether there might be an accompanying CD issued with some of the “cut” information? It seems like a logical solution… Is the information available from other sources, e.g., on the Internet somewhere?

  10. Kent,
    But it is really common to name buildings after living people, provided that such people have significant money. My law school named rooms after donor law firms; many hospitals have wings named after living people—that seems to be a significant incentive toward charitable donation.

    That said, I understand that your point is about honoring non-donors for being good people, and I’m not much of a fan. I’m just pointing out, though, that, in the secular world, it doesn’t appear to be considered bad form (Andrew Mellon apparently didn’t like the practice, however—the few institutions with “Mellon” in their names were, IIRC, named in honor of his father).

  11. This is not to dispute the commonality of the practice, which is very common. Naming opportunities are available for *everything* these days. Of course, colleges are beginning to run in to some problems with He Who Donates Big Gets The Building Name practice when big donors go down in flames (Enron, WorldCom, etc).

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