Living History:
The Peoples Temple Archive at CHS

by Tanya Hollis

When I first came to work as a librarian at the California Historical Society in the summer of 1999, I imagined that I had found the job of my dreams. I would be surrounded by 19th century manuscript collections, documenting my newly adopted state’s history as I remembered it from grammar school, with the preconceived notions of many pioneers before me. My expectations of miners’ diaries from the Gold Rush, combined with Spanish missions, water wars and the rise of Hollywood were not disappointed, as I found myself surrounded with an abundance of materials and papers of those who owned and shaped the state’s early history.

But I had also arrived with the anticipation of the California that gave birth to the revolutionary movements from the 1960s, from images of Haight Ashbury to the birth of the Black Panthers in Oakland and the civil rights struggles of the Free Speech Movement. This interest led me to explore the contents of one of the largest collections housed at the Society, the Peoples Temple Collections, in which I found some of the richest materials documenting the issues of social justice in the 1950s through the 1970s.

As an archivist in charge of making collections available to the public, my initial reaction to the Peoples Temple materials was the realization that, for many, the documentary history of the period contained in the papers was secondary to the more primary purpose they served of telling, and retelling, the story of the members and Jim Jones.

The earliest projects I assisted the public with were devoted to the creation of films and articles, revisiting the tragedy of November 1978, an event I only barely remembered as a child, captured in my mind as the cover of Time magazine which my father subscribed to. Through one of these early projects, though, I was introduced to an entire network of those devoted to the promotion of the public’s need to remember, or discover, the Temple’s living history of families and community building. Through Rebecca Moore and Fielding McGehee, I was given the name of Denice Stephenson, as a possible research assistant. Little did I know then that she and I were embarking on a working relationship that would grow into a partnership, with the idea of expanding both the usability of the collections and exploring new ways of publicizing what she and I already knew – how rich the collections were for everyone, ranging from survivors, family members of those who died, to researchers both inside and outside academia.

Our initial idea – to arrange and describe the collections, and deliver guides to the collections via the web – have only now begun to bear fruit. But the more intangible assets of our association have been my inclusion in what can only be termed “living history;” the meaningful partnerships forged with the goal of telling all of the many stories intrinsic to presenting, not just the accurate story of what happened on November 18, 1978, but the individuals that came together to create that story, their hopes, dreams, differences, and efforts. Together, we attempted to make sense of the paper trail that brought the records to CHS, the players that were involved in their production and the many who had a stake in its preservation and interpretation. From that, we moved forward in our quest to make them both understandable and legible, and created an environment that welcomed everyone to “see for themselves” what the collections had to say.

Often I found myself helping someone in our Reading Room, and a researcher would ask what do you think about the Peoples Temple? My only answer could be (as my role as an impartial archivist), you must decide for yourself – but only after you have taken in all of their history, from their newspaper, The Peoples Forum, from the first person accounts, secondary sources, and, most importantly, their documentary history. Only then does it become apparent that the story is far more complex than the story we’ve been told – and what many continue to believe. While I was not always successful in moving the public to view the entirety of the church’s history, I was able to steer patrons to realize the scope of the collections, which denied a facile understanding of the church as a cult, but rather pointed them toward an understanding of their involvement in the communities they existed in and created – good or bad – within the larger society.

In June of this year, I left CHS to pursue my career as an archivist at UC Berkeley. My most difficult task to leave behind was the work that Denice and I, with the support of many, including Rebecca Moore, Fielding McGehee, and Stephan Jones, had begun. Denice, with Director of the Library Mary Morganti, continues to work on arrangement and description of the collections, and I feel that they are in far more capable hands than my own. But I must surely thank all of those whose commitment to truth and understanding taught me invaluable lessons of how an archive can become living history, which is still in the process of being written.

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on March 14th, 2014.
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