Efforts to preserve the documentary history of Peoples Temple are now known to archivists from around the world.
More than 2000 delegates from 116 countries attended the fifteenth International Congress on Archives in Vienna, Austria in August 2004. Held every four years, the congress of the International Council on Archives allows archivists to join together to discuss how to preserve the world’s documentary heritage.
The theme of this year’s congress – “Archives and Memory, Archives and Knowledge, Archives and Society” – was especially appropriate as the basis for a talk I was invited to give about the Peoples Temple Collection. I served as one of three archivists on the panel, “New Religious Movements Collections: Development and Access Issues.” In my paper, “When Tragedy Informs History: The Challenges of Administering the Peoples Temple Collections at the California Historical Society,” I outlined the history of how the first Peoples Temple collection came to be at the Society in 1983. The court receiver’s records, which still form the bulk of the larger collection, presented numerous challenges to the library, including that of its sheer size and complexity. I described some of the ways CHS has handled issues of privacy, and how we’ve worked to improve access to the collections. I stressed the need for sensitivity in describing the collections in ways that will open rather than close avenues of research, and how the collection has grown to include a number of donations of personal papers. I talked about the turning points of last year’s 25th memorial events, including our exhibit at the San Francisco Public Library. I also spoke about that day last November when I opened the library exclusively to survivors, and families and friends of those who died, and when many of you visited CHS for the first time.
As part of the larger discussion on Archives and Society, the general assembly of the Congress has resolved to call upon the Executive Committee of ICA to develop general guidelines on access to political archives and archives of a sensitive character. I came away with a renewed awareness of the struggles so many face in preserving their own history, which provided me with a perspective on the role we have played in documenting the history of Peoples Temple. As the ICA says on its website: “Archives are . the memory . so that the world can find out what really happened and individuals can remember. Archives are fundamental to ensuring the survival of truth, memory and justice.”
(Mary Morganti is the Director of Library and Archives at the California Historical Society. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)