Preserving the Outpouring of Grief

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 19, 2007

"What do you do with 32 sodden Bibles?"

Michael Taft pondered this one afternoon recently with two colleagues from the Library of Congress. They were part of a team that visited Virginia Tech just weeks after the massacre in April to advise the university on how to preserve the tens of thousands of condolences from around the world that arrived in response to the deadliest shooting by an individual in modern U.S. history.

Thousands of tiny origami cranes had been received. They were on vivid paper that, when strung together, dangled in spectrums that contrasted with the darkness of the moment. There were piles upon piles of letters, banners and stuffed animals. A U.S. Coast Guard crew had sent a signed life preserver as if to say someone was waiting to pull whoever needed it from that murky time.

The Bibles that Taft spoke of had been left at one of the many makeshift memorials, open to the public -- and the elements. They would not be saved.

"You can't preserve everything," Taft said. "That would be impossible."

In the months after the April 16 massacre -- and in a process that continues as the school year begins Monday -- Virginia Tech officials took on the task of preserving for the future what was an immediate outpouring. The Library of Congress crew that offered advice those first few days had worked on a Sept. 11, 2001, collection and knew how to archive grief. The university would have to learn.

Coming Together

"I think there was an immediate recognition that this was important," said Eileen Hichingham, the university's librarian. "The importance is not only what came in, but you have to picture 10 years out. What is it? It's a research project. How do people mourn, how do they come together?"

She keeps one of the paper cranes in a flower pot in her office. A few more are fastened in a row on a hallway message board.

Officials have not finished counting but have logged more than 60,000 objects received by the university as condolences. Many were sent through the mail. Others were left at memorial sites by visitors. There were other items, intangible ones, that lingered only in the digital realm -- blogs and songs and online chats. Those, too, would have to be archived by the university.

"I've probably just seen 1 percent of what there is," Hichingham said. "We're still unrolling things."

One of her favorite items is a card from a bank, which she is including in her annual report. It is a picture of basketball shorts that says: "We hope you will bounce back and let us be your sixth man." Hichingham said she doesn't really follow sports, but she liked that image of someone wanting to jump in and help.

"That really is the analogy that [captured what] I felt most people were trying to do," she said. It's like comfort food after a funeral. "You take the casserole over to the family, and I think people couldn't do that, but they looked to do something as close, as equivalent as they could."

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