The Story of the Stuff: Issues in Temporary Memorial Preservation

Lessons Learned - Suggested Best Practices

Based on the interviews with individuals involved in managing these unthinkable tragedies, the following are ten suggested best practices for those who find themselves in the role of materials manager:

1. First, let the materials do as they were intended: provide comfort.

Feel free to document or track quantities of items as they come in, but let victims, their families, community organizations, and community members choose and make use of the materials as they see fit before selection for inclusion in an archive. Depending upon the quantity and type of items received, consider re-gifting to communities in greater need.

Both Virginia Tech and Newtown found this to be a helpful approach to lessen the quantity of materials to manage and to maximize the good that the materials were intended to do. For instance, at Virginia Tech officials left many of the tens of thousands of paper cranes out in large fishbowls throughout the student center for the taking by community members. Excess quilts, scarves, and garments were donated to local women’s shelters. In Newtown, town officials hosted a toy giveaway at the town hall open to all residents. Other toys, school supplies, and teddy bears not needed or desired by local residents were sorted, packaged, and donated to other non-profits around the globe with the assistant of Adventist Community Services.

2. As early as possible in the process, make sure official communications and press releases communicate the community’s needs, or lack thereof, for certain types of donations. Leverage social media to spread the word.

More than a month passed before Newtown publicly requested that people not send materials. Had these announcements been swifter, the response might have been quelled sooner. In anticipation of the first anniversary, Newtown approached the media early and with persistence, making several public statements that (a) they did not wish for the public to send any more stuff and (b) that media reporters not visit Newtown and grant them private mourning. These statements, coming from the official auspices of the town selectman, were resoundingly successful and the town did not face an inundation of material following the first anniversary.

3. Whenever possible, share the burden among different organizational departments or entities.

Both at Virginia Tech and Newtown, several groups pooled resources or divided labor to make tasks more manageable. In Newtown, response efforts were shared among town officials, the Newtown Volunteer Task Force, volunteers coordinated by Adventist Community Services, as well as several new group efforts that sprang up, including the Newtown Healing Arts Center ( developed and managed by the Newtown Cultural Arts Commission. There were also dozens of additional individual community efforts and projects not described in this chapter but many of which are detailed in a self-published volume entitled Newtown, Moving Forward: A Community Faces the Future After Adversity (Cohen, 2013).

Working within the university structure, Virginia Tech relied on a number of departments and groups. For instance, student health services coordinated counseling services for those affected and student activities organizations took responsibility for items left on campus, such as large plywood message boards with thousands of signatures. Packages sent to campus were received by the student activities office and first logged and organized at the student union before being transferred to an off-site location for archival processing. For additional advice about how to handle the administrative challenges of creating a condolence collection within a university, consult Aaron Purcell’s article about how entities worked together at Virginia Tech, entitled, “More Than Flowers Left Behind: Building an Archival Collection and Remembering April 16, 2007 at Virginia Tech” (2012).

4. Seek outside assistance for managing donations.

While universities might have a number of departments or student organizations to draw upon for assistance, Newtown found itself in great need of human resources. Consider reaching out to organizations such as the Red Cross or Adventist Community Services (ACS), who offers free disaster relief, or local volunteer task forces to manage large tasks.

The Newtown Volunteer Task Force acted quickly to set up a 1-800 hotline to handle the numerous inquiries coming into town. Staffed daily by dozens of volunteers, this center not only answered phones but also coordinated volunteers to read all of the mail received by Newtown and respond with “thank you” cards when possible. At its donation peak, the donations warehouse managed by town tax assessor Chris Kelsey relied on over 100 volunteers to sort and process items received. Were it not for the expert volunteer teams of ACS, the coordination of such a task force would have been impossible.

5. Educate volunteers about any archival practices that might helpful.

In the early days after the Sandy Hook school shooting, inexperienced volunteers and town officials discarded return envelopes for mail and donations coming in. The lack of addresses often made accounting for donations (such as enclosed cash) challenging and thwarted community efforts to reply to the cards and to organize the mail by point of origin for the archival collection.

While volunteers need not be trained in all aspects of archival processing or principles, origin date (such as envelopes with postmarks and return addresses) should ideally be kept or such information may be recorded in some alternate way. Volunteers at Virginia Tech logged receipt information for three-dimensional objects in a simple spreadsheet and tagged all items with corresponding hand-written identifiers. This simple processing made the creation of finding aids and metadata for each object much richer for long-term research and analysis of the global dimension of the tragedy response.

6. Consider the needs of researchers with decades of remove from the present emotion. Think carefully before discarding “distasteful” materials.

The Newtown library struggled to locate any examples of “distasteful” materials for its collection because individual volunteers found these letters offensive and disposed of them. Inclusion of a representative sampling of offensive material, such as conspiracy theorist claims, messages to the crime’s perpetrator, etc., is important for scholarly and historical research that might be done many years down the road. It’s essential to remind volunteers and others without an archivist’s critical distance that it is important to keep these materials and that decisions about what to display if/when/never can be made a later time and done with sensitivity for the community. Virginia Tech, for example, preserved distasteful materials but chose not to digitize or photograph them for inclusion in its online collection.

For additional discussion of the challenges and reasoning for collecting potentially offensive archival material, see the case studies of Stevens (2001), about building a controversial collection about the Vietnam War; Devlin (2010) and Herrada (2003) about an archival collection pertaining to the Unibomber Ted Kaczynski; and Boles (1994) about the acquisition of materials covering the Klu Klux Klan.

7. Involve community stakeholders and local information professionals in your decision-making process. Based on your situation, you may also consider inviting outside experts or advisors from other institutions to guide your process.

Virginia Tech invited a group of experts from the Library of Congress to consult on their collection and also received consultation from individuals at a variety of institutions, including an archivist at Syracuse University who dealt with the aftermath of Pan AM Lockerbie tragedy; Sylvia Grider, as well as the head of Special Collections at Texas A&M; and individuals from Oklahoma State University and Bluffton University, who experienced a plane crash and a bus accident that killed members of the school baseball team, respectively. Both Newtown and Northern Illinois University, in turn, contacted the archivist at Virginia Tech when faced with their school shootings.

Reach out to other institutions and individuals who have managed a crisis. Professional listservs may also be of help, particularly if there are specific tasks or processes where you’d like assistance.

Keep the local community informed of decisions to avoid reactionary responses and unnecessary duplication of efforts. If possible, look for a central point of contact for inquiries for donations and community efforts. Newtown relied largely on its Volunteer Task Force 1-800 line; Virginia Tech primarily used its Office of Student Activities and Office of University Relations to handle public inquiries.

8. Make the best decisions you can with the timeline and resources you have. Each situation is unique. There’s no one-size fits all answer or one ideal response.

An unthinkable tragedy is, by definition, unexpected, unpredictable, and challenging. There is rarely time or energy for perfectionism. Because of its setting, Virginia Tech did not struggle with issues of space or volunteers—there was adequate room to sort all incoming mail on campus in the student center and there were ample student and community volunteers to handle the scale of incoming donations. Not all communities, however, have the built-in infrastructure of a university.

While Newtown did not immanently possess adequate space or resources for the flood of materials that came in, the quick action of individuals, such as tax assessor Chris Kelsey and Volunteer Task Force leader Robin Fitzgerald meant Newtown was poised to receive donations in a short turnaround time.

Keep in mind that sometimes an imperfect but immediate response is better than a “perfect” response down the road. While Newtown made mistakes early on from an archival perspective (e.g. discarding return envelopes, destroying distasteful materials, etc.) and there were communication breakdowns among different efforts, ultimately, the community felt involved in receiving and appreciating the materials coming in. Letters were put on display in large mail bins at the town hall for all citizens to appreciate for six weeks, all were invited to toy giveaways, and the temporary memorials along with Hook were lit with Christmas lights through the holiday season.

While working to create an adequate historical record of the response, keep in mind that even the best archive cannot recreate the visual and emotional experience of the memorial itself. Accept that a perfect record for something so ephemeral is impossible and embrace imperfection.

9. Reach out directly to others who have experienced similar crises.

Both Andrea Zimmermann and Chris Kelsey of Newtown expressed great relief when they were able to get in touch with Tamara Kennelly of Virginia Tech. (Kennelly was similarly grateful for the help of Sylvia Grider at Texas A&M.) While joining the rarified community of condolence item managers is a far from desirable situation, it is a supportive and welcoming community.

10. Be aware of the toll of working with grief materials. Seek supportive resources as you undertake this work.

Dealing with the objects from temporary memorials and grief archives can be an emotionally, physically, and spiritually taxing activity. It is important to attend to the well-being of one’s self as well as other staff tasked with processing such materials.

Materials managers assume leadership roles in a unique situation: it’s both an imminent community emergency, often requiring long hours of non-stop work, and a trauma, involving emotional pain that must be processed to deal with the influx of materials. Even if the processing, cataloging, tagging, etc. of these materials may be, on one level, the same set of tasks that a person would perform as part of their normal job duties as an archivist, engaging with these objects on a daily basis can be “like working in a wake,” as Chris Kelsey put it. The potential psychological toll of working with condolence material over a sustained period of time is real; to go into this work without preparing for that impact is akin to a soldier going to war without attending bootcamp. All of the individuals interviewed for these case studies discussed the emotional burden of their role. It’s advisable to seek assistance—from colleagues, mental health professionals, and/or supportive communities—to help cope with any symptoms of trauma or post-traumatic stress. 

To read the full book chapter on this topic or cite this list, consult: 

Maynor, Ashley R. "Response to the Unthinkable: Collecting and Archiving Condolence and Temporary Memorial Materials following Public Tragedies." In Handbook of Research on Disaster Management and Contingency Planning in Modern Libraries, ed. Emy Nelson Decker and Jennifer A. Townes, 582-624 (2016). doi:10.4018/978-1-4666-8624-3.ch025

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