Saturday, August 15, 2009

SAA 2009: Lasting Memories: Sustained Use of Collections of Tragedy (Session 608)

Flowering tree, alley adjacent to 7th Street, Austin, Texas, 15 August 2009.

The New York State Archives and the New York State Historical Records Advisory Board have been developing a variety of resources for September 11 survivors and families, and I’ve been drawn into this effort from time to time. I wanted to see how other archivists have worked with other communities affected by tragedy, and in the process of doing so I learned a bit about recent changes in American mourning conventions.

NB: This post is long, and it doesn’t do justice to this affecting, thought-provoking session, which highlighted the lingering impact of each tragedy on each presenter's institution.

Lisle Brown of Marshall University couldn’t attend SAA this year, so moderator Aaron Purcell delivered his presentation, which concerned the 14 November 1970 airplane crash in which 45 Marshall football players and coaching staff perished and the aftermath of this event. The university held a memorial service, but there were no spontaneous memorials of the sort that are extremely common today. Special Collections began gathering materials relating to the crash immediately after its founding, and it continues to do so; its 50 linear feet of material include holdings include presidential files, football programs and other materials, newspaper clippings and subject files, recordings of news coverage of the 1970 football season and the crash, and a memorial Web site. However, the university and surrounding communities did not discuss the event and Special Collections’ holdings were largely unused until after the 25th anniversary of the crash, which seems to have encouraged people to talk about it.

The crash and its aftermath were the subject of the Emmy-winning documentary Ashes to Glory (2000) and the fictional feature film, We Are Marshall, both of which had the active support of the university, Special Collections, and area residents. Special Collections staff helped We Are Marshall’s producers recreate Marshall as it existed in the 1970s by producing facsimile documents, researching costumes, and allowing some filming to take place in its facilities. The university waived all rights on the film in exchange for several minutes of time on the DVDs, and Special Collections accessioned some costumes and props; others were auctioned to benefit the university. However, to this date, there still isn’t a comprehensive history of the crash and its aftermath.

Ed Galvin discussed Syracuse University’s Pan Am Flight 103 collection. Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland on 31 December 1988, and all 249 passengers, 35 of whom were Syracuse University students, and 11 people on the ground perished. The campus was emptying out because it was finals week, but those on campus were confronted with a tragedy that still profoundly affects the university. Shortly after the event, the archives started collecting administrative materials, condolence letters, and materials documenting students’ lives.

To date, over 20 books have been written about Pan Am Flight 103, which has global significance. Until 11 September 2001, it was the deadliest terrorist attack against American citizens, it has profoundly affected the community of Lockerbie, Scotland, prosecution of the perpetrators has involved multiple jurisdictions, and many families are still actively seeking justice. Use of the collections reflects the significance of the event: researchers include applicants and recipients of scholarships honoring the dead students, the news media, documentary filmmakers, survivors of other plane crashes and terrorist attacks, government officials preparing counter-terrorism studies and training materials, and academics studying the event, crisis communication, and crisis counseling. Family members also use the collections, and staffers make sure that they have plenty of time and privacy; staffers also consult families before allowing student photographs, etc., to be used in documentaries.

The 20th anniversary of the disaster led the archives to reflect on its work and to commit to ensuring that current students, many of whom were born after the event, understand the attack and its impact. The archives has remained in contact with the victims’ group and emphasized that it is logical archival home for materials concerning all 276 people who perished as a result of the attack. It is also collecting other materials relating to aviation security and terrorism and mounting a campaign to raise a $2 million endowment for a permanent Pan Am Flight 103 archivist, processing and reprocessing collections, digitizing materials, and collecting three-dimensional objects.

Steven Escar Smith of Texas A&M University discussed a more recent tragedy: the 18 November 1999 collapse of a 55 foot-high bonfire that killed 1 former and 11 current students and seriously injured approximately 30 other people. Texas A&M’s tragedy wasn’t caused by an outside agent or during the normal course of business, and the archive bears evidence of the lingering controversy surrounding the collapse.

The tragedy resulted in the creation of three distinct collections:
  • Public Records Collection: Immediately after the disaster, the university’s Office of General Counsel fielded records requests, gathered records, and gave them to the archives, which disclosed them to the media on a first-come, first-served basis. The resulting collection comprises 18 bankers boxes of accident photos, 911 tapes, student records, accident reports, and tapes of media coverage of the event.
  • Bonfire Memorial Project: A university anthropologist who studies spontaneous memorials to the dead gathered materials from impromptu shrines using an “archaeological” paradigm -- she and her students created a grid of the area and noted locations as things were collected. Many materials were left at the shrines in late 1999 and early 2000, and materials left at memorials are still gathered today. This collection consists of 289 bankers boxes of notes, photographs, drawings, stuffed animals, clothing, and other materials, and 42 oversized items.
  • Bonfire Commission: 10 bankers boxes of records created or gathered by an investigative body established by the university.
Smith also outlined a number of lessons that he and his colleagues learned as they disclosed materials to the media, and other archives dealing with “media rushes” ought to find them helpful:
  • Reporters are not your friends, but they’re not necessarily your enemies, either. Once reporters found that the librarians and archivists were committed to openness, they became friendly; staff eventually became uncomfortable with the situation and backed away a bit.
  • Fairness and transparency are your only refuge. Staffers were afraid that we wouldn’t get any Thanksgiving or Christmas breaks, but when they established trust, reporters were fine with their taking some time off.
  • Partners are important. The university’s Office of General Counsel and Department of Anthropology were and are extremely helpful.
  • The emotional toll on staff is real and considerable. Managers didn’t push for counseling, etc., and in retrospect they should have devoted more attention to addressing the emotional impact of the librarians’ and archivists’ work.
Aaron Purcell then spoke briefly about Virginia Tech’s efforts to document the 16 April 2007 campus shootings that left 33 people, including the gunman, dead. After the shootings, spontaneous memorials popped up all over campus, and all kinds of materials arrived from every state and from many nations. An estimated 88,000 items -- textual documents, quilts, banners, paper cranes, food, and many objects -- were received. Most were textual documents, but quilts, banners, paper cranes, and other objects were received; the physical object collection alone comprises 250 cubic feet. The university archives began digitizing materials right away, and is creating an EAD finding aid for the collection, which is still in its infancy. Owing to its recentness, the collection poses new challenges: it will almost certainly include electronic records and Web 2.0 materials.

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