The Story of the Stuff: Issues in Temporary Memorial Preservation

Questions for Practitioners

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The rise of new mourning practices and the increasing scope and scale of public response to tragedy raise a number of issues and concerns for the receiving communities. First, there are the sheer logistical concerns of what to do with all the “stuff.” The resources required for the quantities of items being sent can be costly, human resource intensive, and emotionally draining for the affected community. There are also problems about the kinds of items: first, whether or not they are considered “appropriate” and secondly what to do with the materials if they are deemed “inappropriate” (i.e. to redirect, discard, or dispose of them). The balance between sensitivity for the senders and for the receiving community is an added burden to local citizens, institutional employees, and administrators coping with the aftermath of a public tragedy. Lastly, there is the question of privacy: the media attention that mass casualty accidents and crimes garner can be an intrusive and unwanted invasion of privacy for a community, especially the victims and their families. Communicating with the media and insuring a respectful media presence poses an additional challenge for crisis managers. 
As the cases of Texas A&M, Virginia Tech, and Newtown demonstrate, each tragedy, the local and global response, and the wishes of its home community regarding each of the challenges above are singular. Creating a standard protocol or response strategy would neglect the unique aspects of any tragedy and/or community. Rather than attempt to solve unpredictable issues, this author proposes instead a list of suggested questions for librarians, archivists, and community officials to consider as they develop a response to the influx of materials that often accompany such unthinkable tragedies. 
First, consider how your community and/or institution might cope with the practical, logistical concerns of a local or even global tragedy response.
Some specific questions to consider about space and logistics include:
  • Where might materials arrive or might you anticipate receiving them in your community? (Keep in mind that some spaces, especially shrine locations, might not be predictable in advance of a tragedy.) 
  • Where might you direct incoming materials for processing? 
  • What available spaces are best equipped to handle these materials? 
  • What agencies (e.g. US Postal Service, local police department, campus security, etc.) should be contacted about contingency planning? 
  • Are there spaces in the community where items sent to comfort can be easily redistributed or left for the taking? 
  • Who are the appropriate entities to handle media requests for information and/or to coordinate statements to the media on behalf of the community? 
  • What temporary resources (i.e. volunteer task forces, emergency funds, etc.) might be drawn upon to help with the crisis?
Next, as you determine whether or not there is something unique, historical, or exceptional about this response that is worth preserving for future generations, consider the practical concerns of creating a condolence archive.
Consider each of the following:
Archival Mission & Purpose
  • What will be the overall purpose or function of the archive or collection? 
  • Will it be public/private/a combination of the two? 
  • How might future generations use these materials? 
  • What would be the ideal impact of the archive?
  • How accessible and usable will the archive interface need to be?
  • For how long will this collection exist or remain accessible? (i.e. Should it be available year-round or only for anniversaries? Is it something to preserve in perpetuity?)
Selection & Processing
  • How will items be selected for the collection? 
  • Who will be responsible for making selections? Are there any groups or consultants who should be involved in the decision-making process?
  • Are there any peer institutions or sites of similar crises where you might look to for guidance or as examples?
  • Will “distasteful” or objectionable materials be included? Why or why not?
  • What will happen to materials not chosen for inclusion? 
  • Will the community and/or donors be informed of these decisions and decision-making processes? Why or why not?
  • Is there adequate funding, staffing, volunteers, or in-kind support available for the human resources, materials preparation and cost of archival preservation materials? If not, how will resources be secured (e.g. grants, partner intuitions, sustaining budgets)?
  • Who will be responsible for organizing and maintaining the collection?
Collection Format & Use
  • How will potential users interact with and access the collection (e.g. online, in person, etc.)? 
  • Are there any special considerations, such as new metadata fields or limiters, that might be helpful or needed by potential users? 
  • Are there any sample finding aids, such as those from Virginia Tech or Newtown, that might be drawn upon for inspiration?
  • Will any items have access restrictions? For instance, will some materials be kept private and released at a later date? 
  • How will users learn about the existence of the collection?
Long-Term Preservation & Access
  • How and where will the physical archive be stored? 
  • What supplies are needed (e.g. archival housings, server storage and hosting, etc.)?
  • Is there a maintenance plan for any digital aspects of the collection? 
  • Is the archives/storage facility equipped for the long-term storage and preservation needs of the items? 
  • Are there any corporate sponsors who can assist with this task?
  • What are the plans for this collection in 5 years? 10 years? 50 years? 
As these questions help to illuminate, responding to a tragedy and creating a condolence archive is a significant task. Indeed, it’s often a multi-year project that requires substantial resources and cooperation among different partner groups or organizations. Texas A&M, Virginia Tech, and Newtown each had different resources and took different approaches to managing their condolence items. There are, however, a number of lessons that may be gleaned from these three different experiences.

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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