Sunday, June 24, 2007

Tech to archive shooting mementos

The university is amassing a collection of physical tributes and those posted online.

BLACKSBURG -- Recorded orchestra music is muted by fans churning in corners of this muggy room. Here in Shultz Dining Hall at Virginia Tech, a curious few still come to visit, take pictures and mourn.

It's been two months since student Seung-Hui Cho's on-campus shooting rampage left 32 dead and made news around the globe. Mementos of sympathy left on the Drillfield have been moved into this carpeted room for the summer.

Here, white message boards lean together like A-frame tents, lengthwise spanning the floor. Blue-clothed tables hold ball caps, snapshots and handwritten notes addressed to the victims.

Now, Tech is in the process of deciding how to preserve and archive countless mementos -- both physical objects and those posted online -- for future generations to remember.

"We have to figure out how to handle these materials in the long range," explained university archivist Tamara Kennelly. "It's a slower process than one might imagine."

After the shootings, four representatives from the Library of Congress visited the campus to give advice on how to begin archiving and to help Tech staff decide which items to keep. There were talks on how to treat and store mementos, how to document and track everything received, copyright issues and ethics.

Choosing what to keep may become a large task. The university has received things such as a letter signed by President Bush, flags flown in remembrance in Iraq and banners from elementary school students.

"Obviously, you can't keep everything," said Matt Raymond, the Library of Congress' communications director. "You have to be able to select."

Space and storage issues aside, some of the Drillfield items can't be stored because they were exposed to the outdoors, leading to the possibility, Kennelly said, of future mold or contamination. Items left for individual victims were offered to their families. Those that remain will be displayed in Shultz until the end of summer.

Meanwhile, Kennelly said, items left at places such as the student center and the president's office were moved to the Corporate Research Center, where they were sorted by type -- banners, posters, textiles. In the coming weeks, a record of each item will be entered into a database.

The next stage is deciding which items to display either permanently or on a rotating basis on campus or possibly at ceremonies commemorating the anniversary of the shootings.

The university is also saving online blogs, Word documents, video and photographs online at Since its launch in late April, 500 Web items have been collected -- from pictures of the campus' candlelight vigil, images from memorials at other colleges, stories, cartoons and poems, to professor Nikki Giovanni's address at a post-tragedy convocation.

"We're focusing on trying to collect materials that would be otherwise lost or forgotten," said Brent Jesiek, manager of Tech's Center for Digital Discourse and Culture. "We walk a fine line between being an archive and a memorial site."

Jesiek hopes the site will host 1,000 items by August. Five part-time workers have been hired for the summer, tasked with searching the Web for everything from pictures on photo-sharing site Flickr, to articles from newspapers in Cho's native South Korea to coverage from Puerto Rico and Peru, homelands of two victims.

When students return this fall, Jesiek hopes site submissions and views will increase. Although there are just 75 to 100 visits per day, most people linger on the site, he said, looking at an average of 10 pages each.

Raymond said there tends to be an assumption that Web items last forever. In fact, the average life span of a Web page is 44 to 75 days.

The statistics, he said, make it important for Tech to collect online items for long-term use.

"These materials are even more at risk in a number of ways than more tangible materials," he said. "There's a broad story to be told and preserved for future generations."

Taking advice from the library, Jesiek said Tech also partnered with the site to sweep shooting coverage from 40 online sources, such as The New York Times, and place links on the Archive-It page.

As for the items Tech does not keep, Raymond said the library also offered suggestions. Stuffed animals, for example, could be cleaned and donated to children in hospitals. Paper items can be pulped and used in memorial plantings.

For now, visitors still wander into Shultz Hall, which is filled with tables and message boards and early summer heat. Soon, there will be more permanent archives and memorials. For now, the messages and mementos on display are still strong enough to evoke tears.

"Remember always VT 4/16/07"

"Their spirits will live on and their presence will be forever felt."

"Hokies forever, you will not be forgotten."

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