Forty years ago, 918 people died in Guyana, South America, where Peoples Temple had established a remote community. Survivors, family members, scholars, historians, students, and curious people from around the world were stunned, and many were traumatized.
In the intervening 40 years, many people have researched what happened on November 18, 1978. As a survivor, I found that I needed to know more, understand more. Not only survivors are trying to find answers, others seem to be driven, as well. There is worldwide interest and curiosity, and the media have rediscovered the story in time for the anniversary.
The richest resources are the documents and the memorabilia from Peoples Temple itself: audiotapes, photographs, documents, testimonies, transcripts, letters, oral histories, and more. It has to be available to the public.
Where is the information? Several survivors have written books, articles, and literature about Peoples Temple. Some survivors speak at public events. Many others have collected information and written about different aspects of Peoples Temple, both in non-fiction and in fiction.
Beyond that, there is a huge amount of meaty information. The Jonestown Institute has an amazing collection of tapes and documents, many shared with the Special Collections Department at San Diego State University library. The California Historical Society also has a huge collection of Peoples Temple documents and artifacts. Other newspapers, historical societies, and libraries around the country have their own personal collections as well.
In late 2017, after several years of contact with and speaking at Communal Studies Association Conferences, I decided to donate all of my collected articles, tapes, documents, letters, and photographs to the Communal Studies Department at University of Southern Indiana. I picked this location for a few reasons. First, I was impressed with Jennifer Greene, Reference & Archives Librarian at the David L. Rice Library in Evanston, Indiana. She takes care of business and gets things done. I was impatient to have my own resources available to the public. She is efficient and energetic. Second, I thought that Indiana was a fitting place for Archives to be held, since Jim Jones was born and raised there. Third, the resources will be free and online!
My job as a survivor is to continue the conversation, to continue the search for understanding, and to teach that those who died in the tragedy were some of the best people I could ever hope to meet in my life. Jim Jones was only one of 918. I want whatever information is needed to clarify thinking, and to prevent another tragedy like Jonestown, to be public and available.
I have donated many boxes of documents, photos, and other memorabilia. I chose to donate to University of Southern Indiana Communal Studies Department. Others have chosen to donate elsewhere. My hope is that people who have any documents or other materials will donate to a public, free, safe location that will make all the preserved information available, and sooner rather than later. Information – public, free and searchable information – is the only way to prevent repeating this horrific event.
(Laura Johnston Kohl, who had lived in Jonestown but was working in Georgetown on 18 November, died on 19 November 2019 after a long battle with cancer. She was 72. Her writings for this website appear here.)