The Story of the Stuff: Issues in Temporary Memorial Preservation

Virginia Tech Collection

By best estimates (a precise log was not kept), Virginia Tech received at least 90,000 “lots” of condolence items from all 50 states in the US and from 80 countries. A lot might contain one item (for example, one single quilt) or as many as 32,000 items, such as one gift of origami cranes. University archivist Tamara Kennelly, who assumed responsibility for organizing the material coming in, explained that in addition to these counted materials there were thousands of untracked items received by the student union and given away, such as donations of food, bracelets, and care packages.

The process of selection for this collection was, according to the VT Special Collections website, "guided by the principles of the archival profession to impartially organize, preserve, and make accessible the analog and digital resources documenting the events of that day and subsequently.” More specifically, the process of deciding which materials to keep was a labored one and was informed by consultants and archivists who formed an emergency response committee to assist Virginia Tech with their influx of condolence items. As a result of that committee’s input, selection criteria were developed for which of the logged items should be kept permanently. It was determined that any materials for the permanent collection should meet one or more of the following criteria:

1. Reflections of popular culture—what Marshall Fishwick, [Virginia Tech’s] professor of popular culture, might find interesting, (e.g., there are very marked differences in banners from California vs. Texas vs. Northeast).

2. Sociological interest—e.g., Columbine survivors, places impacted by other tragedies, people mentioning their experiences of loss through violence, their thoughts on related issues (e.g., gun control, mental health services), or cards from people incarcerated, materials reflecting incredible impact of this event on people of all ages.

3. Personal messages to victims or to Cho [the shooter] included on the item. Note: Items that are specifically and uniquely designated for a particular person or family would be directed to them.

4. Materials that help to personalize those whose lives were lost.

5. Materials from Student Senate, UUSA [University Unions & Student Activities], Student Government, or similar groups at other institutions of particular interest to UUSA.

6. The weird, outliers—Library of Congress staff emphasized this.

7. Aesthetics—especially attractive or expressive materials.

8. Materials from engineering schools in other places that express a special connection to our engineering school.

9. Materials from departments of of foreign language and literature as that was a department with two classes attacked during the shootings. (Note: We actually received a set of materials sent to our Dept. of Foreign Language and Literature).

10. Materials from Resident Advisers—one of the first 2 victims was a resident adviser.

11. Unique and special materials—flag flown in Iraq, flag flown at half-mast over Statue of Liberty, Washington Nationals autographed VT hats worn at their game, lighted sign created by VT students, T-shirts created by other institutions to sell and raise money for Hokie Spirit fund.

12. Things from institutions like us—SCHEV peers, ACC peers, other “Tech” or A&M schools.

13. Things from institutions different from us—Harvard, Stanford.

14. Cross-section of materials from various types of places—church groups, businesses, civic group, home school.

15. Geography—foreign materials, materials signed in many different languages, materials from Korea or Koreans, materials demonstrating geographical expanse of senders.

(T. Kennelly, “Criteria for Selection of Materials for the Permanent Prevail Archive,” personal communication, April 6, 2011)

Using the principles described above, of the 90,000 lots of items logged, approximately 7,000 of those lots were accessioned for inclusion in the permanent physical collection and approximately 7,064 items were photographed and selected for inclusion in the digital collection available online. Some items were photographed but not kept; other items were kept but not photographed or included in the digital collection. Thus, some items exist in only one of these two collections. The physical collection is housed in approximately 500 cubic feet of space, with 517 boxes, 17 map case drawers, and standing racks.

The decision was made to photograph a large portion of what could not be kept in order to supplement the smaller physical collection. Kennelly says that as an archivist, her eye was on the future uses of the April 16th collection and how it could be used by the community to research and remember the tragic event. 

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