During the summer of 2004, I donated virtually all of the materials I had collected about Peoples Temple to the California Historical Society (CHS). I made the donation after much personal reflection and careful negotiations with the staff of CHS, and I have a strong sense of gratification and satisfaction of my duty to history in doing so.
However, my work would be incomplete without writing about how and why I decided to turn over these materials to CHS, and I am glad to have the opportunity to do so. My hope in writing this is that all kinds of other people will consider making a similar donation.
In 1987, Transaction Books was about to publish my book, Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History. Despite the many books already written about Jonestown at the time, none gave a detailed history based on scholarly research using archival materials, and there was no guide to the historical evidence available about highly controversial matters.
I wanted my book not only to provide my analysis, but to give people a guide to the evidence that I had used in constructing that analysis. Because the California Historical Society had already received considerable materials about Peoples Temple, I approached their staff about whether they would accept materials that were specifically cited in Gone from the Promised Land. They were quite willing to do so. I provided them with an indexed box of materials that includes correspondence, legal documents, clippings, transcripts of conversations and broadcasts, and various ephemera, as well as an audiotape of the meeting that initiated the murders and mass suicide on November 18, 1978. Since 1987, then, researchers could go to one place – MS 3803 at CHS – to examine the referenced material in the footnotes of my book and thereby explore the evidence for the analysis that I presented.
However, I did not want to overburden the historical society, and in 1987, I was concerned to protect the privacy of individuals. With that in mind, I retained in my possession a number of boxes of materials, including an extensive collection of Peoples Temple tape recordings.
This past year – with the 25th anniversary of Jonestown in November 2003, and the publication in the spring of 2004 of the second edition of Gone from the Promised Land – I was in touch again with staff at CHS on various matters. With the encouragement of colleagues, I decided that enough time had passed that it might be possible to provide broader access to the materials about Peoples Temple that I had held back in 1987. Thus, I began to explore with Denice Stephenson and Mary Morganti of CHS whether they would be interested in receiving additional materials. They were.
After several conversations, we negotiated an agreement so that I could provide three additional cartons of materials, including a wide range of interviews, tape recordings, clippings, and some photographs and publications of Peoples Temple. CHS now has all my materials about Peoples Temple, aside from a few of my own personal documents and some routine business correspondence about the book.
What impresses me about the California Historical Society is the care with which its staff has approached the very sensitive issue of access to these archives. On the one hand, it is important to help create a central archive on Peoples Temple in a timely way, before materials drift away from people who know their significance. On the other hand, some materials may mention living individuals, whose rights to privacy I would not want to compromise. In addition, there are some scholarly materials – about how I wrote my book – that until a fixed date, I wanted to have available to other scholars but not to the general public. CHS staffs were quite supportive of such restrictions on access. Indeed, in the case of privacy issues, they strongly encouraged me to develop criteria by which such materials would be appropriately embargoed.
I believe that each generation will come to reflect on Peoples Temple anew, and that future generations will be best served if they have as wide and complete a set of materials available as possible. It gives me a great deal of comfort to know that the materials through which I learned about Peoples Temple are now in a safe place, administered by professional librarians who have both a sense of discretion about who should have access to any sensitive materials, and at the same time, are strongly interested in giving people every reasonable opportunity to learn more about Peoples Temple. Whatever other monuments there may be, a good historical archive will endure longer than any stone. I would encourage anyone, whoever you may be, if you have materials about Peoples Temple, to get in touch with the California Historical Society about donating them. If you are like me, you will feel good that you have done so.
(John R. Hall, author of Gone from the Promised Land, teaches in the Department of Sociology at University of California – Davis. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.)