Last fall, I agreed to do research on the Peoples Temple files for a Canadian history channel television producer. With a two-day budget, the name of the librarian, and an offer to review (by email) the several hundred-page index of the Peoples Temples collections, I began my short project with an email introduction to Tanya Hollis. By the end of the day, we arranged an appointment for me to visit CHS and to have an overview of the collections
CHS is easy to get to at Third and Mission in downtown San Francisco — only one bus ride from my flat in San Francisco and kitty corner across the street from the Yerba Buena gardens. The CHS Museum and Bookstore (and beautiful windows) are at the front of the building. Greeted by museum staff at the information desk, I waited for Tanya. She brought me back to the North Baker Research Library — a quiet room with large worktables, wiring for laptops, comfortable chairs, lots of pencils, and great air. She explained how to request files from the collections and how the library processes copying and photo reproduction orders. She brought me copies of the available indexes to the Temples files. For the remainder of my short visit that day, I reviewed several files from the collections to get an idea of the types of documents available and to try to understand what the indexes really described. I left impressed by the staff and the facility, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of material, and with an appointment for the following week.
The mission for my next visit was to take a list of suggested documents from the television producer, look at the files, take notes, and report back. First step — request specific files to be pulled by the library’s staff. I tried to give them several days’ notice for this. When I arrived (by now I knew where to hang my coat and to leave my sweater on), the files were waiting for me at the end of one of the tables. I got to work.
It was not easy going. Though braced to be as matter of fact as possible about the search for specific documents that met the producer’s requirements, I found that the papers — even fairly dry ones such as the land lease documents for Jonestown — caused me to be confounded, anxious, and emotional. The library’s policy to always have a staff member present when people are using the library proved to be a source of comfort as well as informational support. I could not help but blurt out several times, “Will you look at this?” or “What is this?” It turned out that I could withstand only two to three hours at a time. Tanya and Abby (it didn’t take long to start learning more names) were agreeable to appointments to review the files even beyond the library’s scheduled hours.
For the next month, I visited CHS two times a week. I had the chance to see the rows and rows of boxes (150 related to the Peoples Temple) stored on the first level of the CHS building. The Peoples Temple collections are a unique set of related collections at CHS where most of the other collections date from the gold rush era. By the time the television producer came to film the documents, we were all ready — with more papers and artifacts than could be filmed in a day.
My short research project took a few more hours than what was originally scheduled, but I continued to feel welcomed and eventually limited myself to only one outburst a day. It’s a safe, quiet place to work. And the memories and information that the collections hold are safe, too.
(Ed. Note: Ms. Stephenson continues her volunteer work to organize the CHS collections on Peoples Temple.)