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The tragedy archivists

The day after the monster opened fire on a bible study group at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015, killing nine parishioners, the memorial forming in front of the church was already four-feet deep. Passing showers and storms are as regular as the heat index cracking the triple digits at that time of year—and both would fast ruin the items left beneath the pale staircases. The church, grieving and equipped with little experience with such tragedy, was confronted with how to handle the influx of tokens of support that arrived in the days and months after the shooting.

(Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

So, a group of volunteers from the Charleston Archives, Libraries, and Museums Council—CALM, for short—mobilized to take on the time-consuming task of collecting and cataloguing items left at the memorial. One of those archivists, Celeste Wiley, a family friend, told me about this in August. And she was part of an "All Things Considered" segment on NPR last month sharing the story again. Wiley is the visual materials archivist at the South Carolina Historical Society, and she said CALM approached the church about taking over the process, which was overwhelming the congregation both in logistical scope and emotional agony. Initially, because of the sheer amount of materials being left at the church, the archivists would make two trips a day to bring the collection from the steps of the church inside to the basement. The church was fast running out of space. The archivists were given two rooms at a local community center to continue cataloguing the hundreds of artifacts. But that soon restricted the center’s ability to use its own space, not to mention the center’s hours of operation limited the volunteers’ efforts. Then came a blessing, it seemed. A nearby catholic church offered the archivists 24-hour access to an unused children’s home. It was dry, climate controlled and provided plenty of space. All they asked was that Emanuel AME sign a lease, for zero dollars, assuming liability for the property and requiring insurance in case of any damage on the property. In other words, standard operating procedure.

But the archiving effort has slowed in the last year as a result of internal strife among the church’s new leadership. Emanuel AME is on its third pastor since the shooting, which took the life of Rev. Clementa Pickney. The first, Rev. Dr. Norvel Goff, carried baggage from past financial controversies, and has since been involved in lawsuits with the victims’ families over the handling of monetary donations made after the massacre. He was criticized for not reaching out to the victims’ families. Rev. Goff reportedly objected to the catholic church’s proposal of space, preferring to set a permanent memorial site at one of the houses Emanuel AME owned. But those homes did not have air conditioning and stood in a flood zone—precisely the hazards the archivist were trying to avoid. Goff eventually left Emanuel AME about eight months later. By that time, the archiving progress languished. Rev. Betty Deas Clark arrived next; she supported the archiving, and the process resumed. But five months after her appointment at Emanuel AME, she was reassigned with little explanation. Now, Wiley tells me, despite CALM erecting a temporary gallery to mark the one-year anniversary in a city building across the street from Emanuel AME, the project has again stalled as the third new pastor settles in.

The Emanuel AME archiving experience, on a larger level, is illustrative of a broader network that has formed over the last few years: a web weaved by archivists of violent tragedy. Often, the victims, survivors, their families and community don’t know how to handle the flood of tangible signs of support that comes after a large deadly tragedy. As it turns out, a community’s archivists might not either. As I mentioned, logistics aren’t easy. Emanuel AME received roughly 50 prayer quilts, 400 knitted prayer shawls, and 500 prayer squares from across the country, not to mention boxes of teddy bears, candles, portraits, and letters, “sent frequently in the hundreds,” Wiley said. Every object must be photographed, measured, assigned an ID number, and the details of its origin documented in a spreadsheet. And then there’s the emotional tax. In one instance, Emanuel AME received sets of portraits of all nine victims for each family, 81 photos total. The families didn’t want them; the wounds were too raw, even for good intentions.

CALM had no experience in that realm, and so they consulted with archivists who dealt with the memorials at the Boston Marathon bombing and the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting. At the annual Society of American Archivists conference in August, Wiley moderated a panel discussion with members from CALM about the difficulties they’ve faced at Emanuel AME. And as a result, they were approached by archivists from Texas A&M who are trying to sort out the materials the school collected after the bonfire collapse in November 1999 that killed 12 students.

These archivists must accurately capture the reaction to the events while remaining sensitive to the real possibility of retraumatization. There's no measurement for striking the right balance. But now the Charleston archivists are sharing how to do that with appropriate solemnity. After the June 2016 shooting at the Pulse night club in Orlando, led by veteran historian George McDaniel, CALM offered guidance to what McDaniel last year called “preserving the tangible expressions of public sympathy.” And the network of tragedy archivists grows.

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