Preserving the Outpouring of Grief
Va. Tech Archives 60,000 Condolences

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 tomorrow -- 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 Hitchingham, 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," Hitchingham 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." Hitchingham 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."

But with each object that arrived, came a series of questions. Should it be saved? Should it be discarded? Like the 32 cakes that were received, one in honor of each person killed by Seung Hui Cho, a mentally disturbed student who also killed himself. Was it right to eat them or better to throw them away? Should someone take a photograph first to document that they existed?

Same with the banners that seemed to come from every school across the country, some signed with the handprints of elementary school kids who hadn't yet learned to write and others with the insight of fellow college students who'd also experienced tribulation. Which deserved to be kept?

"You try to imagine what kind of research people will do in the future," said Cassy Ammen, who was part of the Library of Congress team that went to the university.

"You try to think who in a 100 years will want to know that," added another team member, Cheryl Adams.

That is the catch to this type of preservation process: Not everything can, or should, be preserved. The Library of Congress recommended that the university aim to save 5 percent of the physical objects that were received.

To Keep, Or Not

There is a room labeled "Not kept" in the rented office space where the objects have come to rest.

Mostly there are banners and a few stuffed animals piled in the room. A snow globe that says "Peace" also found a home in a cardboard box there. But the other rooms -- labeled "textiles," "banners," "cards," large posters" and "keep items" -- are packed with mementos.

It is easier for the team that has worked here this summer to decide to save something than to choose the opposite fate.

"Sometimes I'll put something in the discard room, and a student will pull it out and say, 'We have to keep this,' " said Tamara Kennelly, the university's archivist. It's her job to oversee the archiving process and to ultimately decide what will be kept.

Worthy of keeping, she decided, is the large kite that came from South Korea and the box of items from a school in China. A note in the box explains that the class "spent a day gathering gifts, special Chinese gifts hoping to bring you blessing, peace, and finally joy in the midst and in the aftermath of the madness." Keep-worthy is also the poster from Columbine High School and the card from a federal prison inmate. Many condolences were received from jails, but this one had been carefully penned and contains hand-drawn pictures of the victims.

"It just made me think a lot about grief and this whole ripple effect, that what happened here in the little town could have such a dramatic effect in the world that people would want to send something," Kennelly said, standing amid it all. "It's affected them, too. It's changed the way they see the world, too."

The university has only 800 cubic feet in which to store the archived goods, and Kennelly's team has until November to decide what will go there. She calls it a "daunting" task, especially since funding for the student staff runs out next month.

"I don't think people understand how big it is," Kennelly said of the collection.

Paper chains alone filled a cardboard box made to carry a couch.

"You can't understand the magnitude of what has been sent unless you see it yourself," said Karen Mackey, 24, who just graduated from the school with a master's degree in history and spent her summer working on the archive. "It's actually showing how much of a global community we've become."

Virtual Mourning

After the shooting, the Internet also became a place of communal mourning. User photos on MySpace pages were immediately replaced with the image of a black ribbon wrapped around a "VT." Facebook postings became virtual shelves of sympathy cards. A memorial in the virtual world, Second Life, even sprouted, complete with digitally drawn flowers, memorial stones and crying mourners.

Brent Jesiek, manager of the Center for Digital Discourse and Culture, said there was an immediate recognition that a digital archive would be needed in addition to the physical one.

"We were already getting the sense that some of this might be lost over the long term if someone didn't do something to collect some of it," he said.

So, he and others created a Web site:

On it are songs, photographs, poems, blog postings and scenes from the Second Life memorial, including a comic strip that chronicles Cho's struggles. In one, Cho is shown in a darkened dorm room, holding onto the window. A frame later he is pictured clutching his head, sweating and saying, "They are all laughing at me!! I know! I know! I know!"

One comic strip in the series was blocked from public viewing after some people found it too detailed. It showed Cho walking into a classroom, opening fire.

"One of the challenges we've had with the archive, especially in the immediate aftermath, is a lot of people wanted to view it as a memorial, as a tribute site," Jesiek said. "And in a way it is. But it is not just that. We've tried to be very agnostic in the type of material we collect."

Still, there is only so much distance one can maintain while poring through the archived items hour after hour, day after day. Every letter must be read by someone. Every item must be logged and photographed.

"I think everyone's had moments where they've gone into the bathroom and cried," Kennelly said.

Off to the side of the orderly piles of banners and tagged mementos that her group has worked all summer to organize sits a chaotic cluster of candles and figurines. It is a small memorial that team members created for themselves, made from a hodgepodge of items with no traceable origin. None are particularly keep-worthy . . . just comforting.

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