Historians find it difficult to underscore enough the importance both of first-hand accounts of events and of documents produced concurrent with those events. Referred to as primary sources, these materials enable historians to reconstruct those events from multiple perspectives, allowing for the representation of dissenting voices from those that may have been omitted in published secondary sources. One’s own personal papers are often overlooked as primary sources, as we tend to dismiss collections produced in our own lifetime as irrelevant, or not yet of historical interest, making them difficult for researchers to find when researching topics in recent history. In the case of the Peoples Temple, whose history has been written and continues to be written, there is a need to add to the different voices representing Peoples Temple. Currently, there are few collections of former members available for research for both scholars and former members alike. Available collections include researcher’s notes, records of federal agencies, and the Temple’s administrative files, but collections of personal papers are sorely lacking. Current oral history projects aimed at recording Temple members and others’ recollections of the church membership have begun to fill that void. But there is still much to be gained from primary documents, created by Temple members in the course of their lives both within the church and outside of it. Such items can range from diaries and correspondence to photographs, recordings, and published works.
As a personal example, while writing an article on the Temple’s role in San Francisco housing politics during the 1970s for the recently-published Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America (see review), I found it was often the most incidental materials that led to a greater understanding of redevelopment and the Western Addition. At the San Francisco Public Library’s San Francisco History Center, I used newsletters, correspondence and other ephemeral publications created by organizers to piece together the neighborhood’s resistance to the Redevelopment Agency. But items throughout the Peoples Temple Records at the California Historical Society, ranging from correspondence and diaries to the Temple newspaper, was what enabled me to identify materials that linked the Temple membership to housing activism in San Francisco. These links had been discussed in secondary sources, but they came to life in greater, richer, and more human detail with the personal records that CHS, the main repository for materials relating to Peoples Temple, now holds.
I urge all former Temple members and relatives to contacting CHS to discuss potential donations to the library, where collections will be made available to scholars as well as to people who can still benefit personally from their research.
(Tanya Hollis is a former librarian at the California Historical Society, and is currently an archivist at The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)