Response to the Unthinkable: Collecting and Archiving Condolence and Temporary Memorial Materials following Public Tragedies

Response to the Unthinkable: Collecting and Archiving Condolence and Temporary Memorial Materials following Public Tragedies

Ashley Maynor (University of Tennessee – Knoxville, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8624-3.ch025
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From Oklahoma City to Columbine to the Boston Marathon finish line, individuals around the world have responded to violent mass deaths publicized in mainstream media by creating ever-larger temporary memorials and sending expressions of sympathy—such as letters, flowers, tokens, and mementos—by the tens and even hundreds of thousands. Increasingly, there is an expectation that some, if not all, of the condolence and temporary memorial items will be kept or saved. This unusual and unexpected task of archiving so-called “spontaneous shrines” often falls to libraries and archives and few protocols, if any, exist for librarians and archivists in this role. This chapter aims to provide insight and guidance to librarians or archivists who must develop their own unique response to unanticipated and unthinkable tragedies. Response strategies are covered in both a discussion of the history and literature surrounding temporary memorials and three disaster case studies: the 1999 Texas A&M Bonfire Tragedy, the 2007 Virginia Tech Campus Shooting, and the 2012 Sandy Hook School Tragedy.
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We’ve all become a nation of hoarders. 
– Dr. Erika Doss, American University


The Story Of The Stuff: Background And Literature Review

In the Western world, spontaneous shrines are a “primary way to mourn those who have died a sudden or shocking death, and to acknowledge the circumstances of the deaths” (Santino, 2006, p. 5). Coined by folklorist Jack Santino (1992) in an article about death ritual in Northern Ireland, the term “spontaneous shrines” refers to such phenomena as the Mourning Wall at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing, the panoply of messages on plywood barriers and missing persons posters at “Ground Zero” in New York City following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, and even the temporary roadside memorials and urban corner shrines of teddy bears, votive candles, and cards following automobile accidents or drive-by shootings.

This practice was first heavily theorized in Santino’s seminal book, Spontaneous Shrines and the Public Memorialization of Death (2006) and “spontaneous shrine” has hence become both a widely used and contested term. Newer theorists, such as Doss (2008, 2010) and Sturken (2007), opt instead for the phrase “temporary memorial,” due to both the often secular dimensions of this kind of commemoration and to emphasize the ephemeral but not necessarily spontaneous nature of the practice. Other common terms include “performative memorials,” “makeshift memorials,” “ephemeral memorials,” and “spontaneous memorials.”

Key Terms in this Chapter

Mass Shooting: The act of murdering many people, typically at the same time, in a short span of time, by firearm.

Grief: A response to loss that may manifest itself through physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, spiritual, or philosophical dimensions.

Spontaneous Shrines: A term first used by scholars Jack Santino and Sylvia Grider to describe the collections of condolence materials left at sites of death or tragedy.

Condolence Materials: A mailing, such as a card or letter, or object, sent in sympathy to a site of tragedy.

Temporary Memorials: Coined by Erika Doss as an alternative to “spontaneous shrines,” this term emphasizes the ephemeral and organized aspects of the collections of objects left at sites of tragedy.

Bereavement: The state of loss, be it cognitive, emotional, or physiological.

Public Tragedy: Any tragic event, such as a mass shooting or accident, in which lives are lost that is covered in depth by national and/or international news media.

Anthropogenic: Any disaster that is caused by humans as opposed to acts of nature (e.g. floods, tornadoes, etc.).

Material Culture: The physical evidence of a culture in the objects or things they make or have made, use, or consume.

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