The Jonestown Library

by Nicola Bergström Hansen

08-05a-nicola2“If you had an important idea that you wanted to let everyone [in the world] know about, how might you go about letting them know?”

– Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Book no. 102 in The Jonestown Library

In the late fall of 2010, I left Sweden for San Francisco with Jonestown on my mind. To be more precise, I had an artist grant to conduct research for my thesis project: the library that once existed in Jonestown.

A few months prior, I had read a beautiful and very moving text by Garry Lambrev about his friendship with Temple member Teresa King, who died in Jonestown. Like Garry, Teresa was a librarian, but hers was in Jonestown. I had never before heard about the library, and it immediately caught my interest.

The fact that Jonestown did have a library changed my perception of Peoples Temple. A library, to modify the famous metaphor of Socrates, is the delivery room for the birth of ideas, a place where history comes to life. A library is the opposite of isolation, the antidote to blindly following a leader, the contradiction of not thinking for oneself. No one moves to a foreign country, settles down in the middle of the jungle and builds a library knowing that one would commit suicide. The library in Jonestown was a promise of another, brighter, future.

During my short but intense stay in San Francisco, I visited the site of the Temple building on Geary Street, got a feel for the history of the city, and most importantely went through as many Peoples Temple records as possible. I spent most of my time at the California Historical Society, where I started compiling a list of the books that had been in the library. I used the Jonestown library cards from the Temple’s records which the FBI recovered in Jonestown after the deaths. With a little detective work, I ended up with a list of 112 titles. Of course, those are not all the titles that were in the library, it is only the ones that there are records of. A complete list of the books in the library is probably lost forever, if such a list ever even existed in the first place.

When I returned to Sweden, I started to think about what I could do with the list that I had put together. Would it be possible to assemble the collection together once again, to bring the Jonestown library back into the public realm? The books themselves were not lost to the world, of course. On the contrary, they existed everywhere, scattered about in books stores, libraries, schools and private collections. In other words, the library hadn’t been lost, it had merely been dispersed, neglected, forgotten.

My first attempt to bring the books together began in the public library. I presented my project, The Jonestown Library, to the public for the first time in early December 2011. During the one-day event, I took 37 of the 112 titles on the list – which I had borrowed from public libraries around Stockholm – and arranged them together on a small table at Renseriet, an experimental exhibition space run by an artist collective. During the short exhibition, visitors could borrow the books, bring them home and read them.

My second attempt of reassembling the library centered around the idea of the 112 books not being lost but merely displaced and spread out. This time I wanted to reach a wider audience, so I started experimenting with a service provided by Amazon, the online book retailer, as a way to make the library public. Using listmania!, I transferred my list into an online wishlist, so now whenever someone searches Amazon for one of the 112 volumes that was in the library of Jonestown (I found 107 of them listed for sale), Amazon provides a link to The Jonestown Library listmania! list. The books are thereby connected once again through Amazon’s recommendation service. The books also refer to other books outside of The Jonestown Library, creating a whole universe of books. As a result, The Jonestown Library is no longer an isolated island but a part of a peninsula connected by Amazon to millions of other books.

The next step in the evolution of my project was to solidify The Jonestown Library into a complete physical collection. I ordered the books one by one from all over the globe and read them all as they came to my mailbox. Finally, after collecting all 112 books, I had the exciting challenge of a whole new array of artistic possibiblities.

After my one-day library project, I had been thinking about how to make The Jonestown Library accessible and public, yet protected and safe. I found my answer when I was asked to submit a proposal for a public artwork commissioned by The Gävle Art Centre.

Sweden has a strong policy that protects art bought or commissioned by a municipality, making it really tough to sell or in other ways get rid of. Once the artwork is procured, the municipality rarely discards it. By achieving the status of sanctioned art, The Jonestown Library would be secured a place in the public for the foreseeable future. The collection itself was exhibited at the group show Hello Gävle at Gävle Art Centre.

So far then, The Jonestown Library has been a one day library, an Amazon listmania! list, an exhibit of public art, a blog and a slideshow. In the future The Jonestown Library could become a study circle, a laundry room library, a series of public readings or a newspaper. Right now I’m looking for ways to bring The Jonestown Library to San Francisco where the books were originally collected.

The projects that together make up the The Jonestown Library are united in their attempt to find other “readings” of the story of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, by making the audience aware of the library’s existence and giving people room to form their own relationship to the titles. My purpose has been to offset the preconceived idea – often portrayed by the media – that Jonestown was a place where a thousand cult members were brainwashed by a lunatic leader with an obsession with death and destruction. That is a story painted in only black and white, and reduces Peoples Temple and Jonestown to an “other,” something deviant and separated from the rest. I strongly believe that the people who built, lived and died in Jonestown weren’t “the other” – that no one is ever “the other.” By connecting with the books in The Jonestown Library, the viewer becomes connected to the Jonestown community itself and to the people who shared their love for books.

(An 18-minute slide presentation of The Jonestown Library – with quotes from some of the books, as well as observations from Jonestown residents and visitors – appears here.

(Nicola Bergström Hansen, born in 1983, is an artist living and working in Stockholm. She graduated with a master in fine arts from Konstfack University College of Arts, Crafts and Design in the spring of 2012. The Jonestown Library was her degree work. More information about The Jonestown Library can be found at her webpage www.nicola.se and she can be reached at nicolabergstrom@gmail.com.)

Originally posted on July 28th, 2013.

Last modified on December 30th, 2020.
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