How do you remember or memorialize a national tragedy? For some, it involves conversing with family and friends, participating in a moment of silence, watching a memorial in person or on the news, or visiting a memorial museum or archive. People take time to remember in the ways that feel most comfortable to them.
With the passing of September 11th this month, we became particularly interested in the commemoration of tragic events through memorial museums and archives. As future librarians ourselves, we wondered: how do librarians and archivists work to preserve collections associated with national tragedies? How do you balance the emotional considerations of various stakeholders and the collection at large? It must be tough work.
To address these questions, we decided to interview Vanessa St. Oegger-Menn, Assistant University Archivist and Pan Am 103/Lockerbie Air Disaster Archivist here at Syracuse University. In our exchange with Vanessa, we learned that what we were interested in has a name: grief-based collections. Vanessa was kind enough to share her background as an archivist, disclose what types of items are in the Pan Am 103/Lockerbie Air Disaster Archives, and explain how they are cared for. Most importantly, Vanessa asserted her mission to frame the Archives in a way that allows people to remember those lost in the tragedy for who they were, not how they died.
General Overview of Pan Am 103 / Lockerbie Air Disaster Archives
For those of you who may be unfamiliar, Pan Am Flight 103 was a transatlantic flight scheduled to fly from London to New York on December 21, 1988. Shortly after takeoff, the aircraft was exploded by a bomb over the small town of Lockerbie, Scotland. A staggering 270 lives were lost— 259 on the plane, and 11 on the ground in Lockerbie. Tragically, 35 students studying abroad through Syracuse University were on Pan Am Flight 103, returning from a semester abroad in London and Florence. In their honor, Syracuse established the Pan Am Flight 103/Lockerbie Air Disaster Archives in 1990 with the goal to:
- Bring together in one place materials generated regarding the disaster and make those materials available for research
- Provide a place to personalize our students whose lives were lost; where their families can donate materials by or about them to let the world know in some way what has been lost by their deaths.
Kara and Kayla: What is your professional background? How long have you been working for the Pan Am 103 archives?
Vanessa: I have a previous MA in British Literature and while doing that program, I did a lot of archival research. So when it came time to figure out what to do next, I decided I would go to library school and specialize in special collections and archives. I did my LIS degree here at the iSchool, and had the privilege to work at Bird Library in Special Collections as a graduate assistant, where I answered a lot of reference questions. After graduation, I worked in Access and Resource Sharing (ARS) at Bird Library for a year or so. When a position opened for an ‘Assistant Archivist for the Pan Am 103 Archives’, I applied and was offered the job.
I have been in this position for about three years. In that time, the position has changed quite significantly. I am now the ‘Pan Am 103 Archivist’ and the ‘Assistant University Archivist.’ In addition to that, I am one of the advisors for the Pan Am 103 and Lockerbie Scholars. My main responsibility is to shepherd the Remembrance Scholars through planning Remembrance Week, which occurs each fall here at the University.
K&K: What does your day-to-day work consist of?
V: There’s really no set day. When it’s not the time of the year when I’m helping plan Remembrance Week, typically I’ll come in and answer whatever reference questions have come in from the day before. I may have been contacted from some of the families or by other folks who are connected to PA103/Lockerbie for a variety of reasons. I may do some donor relations work, and then if I’m really lucky— I get to actually process collections. You don’t spend as much time processing as you think you’re going to! I do a lot of processing myself, and we also have graduate students that assist us. So I’ll do some processing, and maybe a little conservation work. I’ll do basic triage work, and then refer things to our conservation librarian if they’re more complex.
I do class sessions for all levels of university classes from freshman level up to graduate level courses in all sorts of departments. A lot of the classes that we do are for the HNR 100 classes, which are introductory seminars for the Honors Program. It helps give students an overview of not only what we have, but what an archive or a special collection is and what they can do as students in the Archives. We like to emphasize that we’re here for access but we are also here for preservation, so we teach good handling practices.
I also work with colleagues from all over the University to plan Remembrance Week. They come from the Honors program, News Services, and Hendricks Chapel. We’ve done exhibits in the past and we’ll be doing a large exhibit for the 30th anniversary next year.
K&K: What types of items are in your collection?
V: We have everything. We have a lot of material that you’d expect to find in an archive: paper-based materials, correspondence, government reports and legislation, photographs, audio visual material. But because of it being what we called a grief-based collection— that’s really viewed as a set of memorial collections by the families— we take things that a normal archive, let alone a university archive, wouldn’t normally take. We have personal items that belong to the victims— everything from textiles to gym membership cards, alarm clocks, a whole set of model trains, and woodworking tools.
We also have a fair amount of artwork. One of the items that’s really interesting to study is a small maquette of one of the Dark Elegy statues. Dark Elegy is an artistic work representing wives, mothers, sisters— female relatives of individuals who were lost in PA 103/Lockerbie— in the position they remember falling into when they found out their loved one had died in this terrible way. It was created by Suse Lowenstein, who is a mother of one of the 35 Syracuse students who was lost.
We also have huge banners that the families used when they would protest outside the UN or Capitol Hill to call for a real investigation of what had happened and a real change to aviation security.
K&K: What are two items that contain special meaning to you?
V: I can think of two that really stand out. One is a hat that belonged to William David Giebler Jr., who was not one of our 35 SU students but was an adult man traveling for business who died on his way back home. We have his favorite baseball cap, which is a hat for Notre Dame football. It was originally returned to his family from the crash site of Lockerbie. I’m continually amazed that the families choose to entrust us with these materials. I’m really honored by that. This hat, in particular, was one of the very first things I touched when I actually started my position; it was the first collection I processed. So it has really significant meaning to me for that reason as well.
The other item is actually not an item, it’s a collection of the same type of item. It’s called the London 1988 Image Collection. The collection consists of photographs that were donated to us— mostly digitally— by London ‘88 alumni who were with our 35 students that semester, just as study abroad students. The reason why I think that collection is so important and moving— especially to our Remembrance Scholars and to our undergraduate students— is because it shows the students that we lost as just normal, college students. They’re at nightclubs or they’re visiting Stonehenge, or they’re practicing a play for their theater class.
I think it’s really easy to think of everyone that was lost as a victim and to focus on how their life ended, rather than on who they were and what was lost when they were killed. I always like to make sure that my Remembrance Scholars spend some time looking at those images because I feel that they can really connect in a visceral way.
K&K: Are you still accessioning items into the collection today? If so, how do you choose what to save?
V: We don’t save everything because of course— like all archives— we just don’t have the space. We have a lot of space, but there’s never going to be enough space to save everything. We are definitely still accessioning material. I receive material on a regular basis, at least once a month, and that can range from one envelope with a couple clippings in it to forty boxes of papers.
In terms of how we evaluate what we keep, if it’s directly related to one of the victims or came directly to us from their family and speaks to the work that they’ve done in the last 29 years to commemorate Pan Am 103/Lockerbie, we keep it. We’re never going to turn any of that material away. The things that we tend to not retain or sample, more so, or create artificial collections from are things like commercial publications or government publications, broadcast or commercial releases of documentaries or films. We talk to donors about the fact that we are not going to keep everything, and if they’d like, we can return the material to them.
Things need to be pretty directly related to Pan Am 103 and Lockerbie to fit into our collecting scope. We have branched out some; we have some material referencing UTA Flight 772, 9/11, and the Oklahoma City bombing. But we are not a terrorism archive…we are the Pan Am 103/Lockerbie Air Disaster Archives. The reason why we have that material is primarily because the Pan Am 103 families made it a point when these other disasters and tragedies happened to reach out to the families of the victims and survivors to say, “This is how we made it through as a group,” or “This is how we appealed to our government to do something.”
K&K: How do you conserve unique items?
V: We do special housing for a lot of the items. For instance, soil from the crash site was bagged in archival quality bagging and then placed in an acid-free box. We want people to see as much as they can from the collection but we also want to contain an item like this, so that it doesn’t damage other materials viewed in the Reading Room. Fragments from the plane itself are also bagged, but patrons wearing gloves are welcome to remove them from the bag.
More often than not, we work with vendors to have custom housing made. One of the families has recently donated their husband and father’s complete suitcase that was returned to them. It was actually returned to them quite late because the suitcase was in the same compartment as the bomb. It was used as key evidence in the trial and was returned to the family after the appeal ended in 2001. I’ve spoken with some folks at the 9/11 Museum to see what they’re doing with the significant amount of retrieved material from that tragedy. We will probably photograph the suitcase and what’s inside it, and then make a surrogate available to patrons. If the family wanted to come spend time with the original materials, or if a researcher had a compelling reason to see the originals, we’ll allow it.
K&K: How do you juggle the emotional considerations of various stakeholders (the public, the victims’ families, the University, etc.) who visit the Archives?
V: I think it completely depends on who the person is and why they’re coming to view the Archives, or why they’ve contacted us for assistance in researching the collections. If it’s a family member coming to visit, we typically find a private space for them, spend some time speaking with them, and listen to them. If it’s someone who is interested in a strict research perspective of how universities handle a mass casualty loss, we can provide some insight. We were one of the first American universities that had to deal with something of this nature.
The University obviously has an investment in how the materials are represented so we honor that and try to make things as available as possible. The University has made a commitment to never forget and to remember those people— especially our 35 students—for as long as the University is here.
Even 30 years down the line, grief is a very fickle and strange thing. Some of the families are much more comfortable discussing things in depth, and for some, it’s very difficult, if not nearly impossible. I think just trying to be sensitive to where everyone is coming from is best practice, and we try to never say ‘no’ to families, while still being mindful of preservation.
K & K: The Pan Am 103 bombing occurred in 1988— almost 30 years ago today. How do you use the collection to sustain the collective memory of the tragedy over time?
V: There is sort of a fluctuation in people’s interest. This year is the 29th anniversary and the 28th year of the scholarship program. It’s not as ‘big’ as 30 will be, but at the same time, it’s more eventful than year 27. From what I’ve learned from speaking to the families group, it tends to be the same for them. They hold a memorial every year in Arlington, and a 25 year or 30-year attendance is huge. During the ‘off’ years it is mostly the families and those who are deeply connected, which is to be expected.
We are beginning to have freshmen enter college who were born after 9/11 happened, and in a few years, we’ll be close to having students enter college whose parents weren’t alive when Pan Am 103 happened. This makes it difficult. A key way to keep the Archive of relevance is through the scholarship program. Each scholar is paired one-to-one with a student that we lost on the plane. They get to know that student through the Archives. We encourage them to contact the family and connect with that student in a personal way.
We also conduct instruction sessions throughout the academic year and contextualize Pan Am 103 within a post-9/11 world for various course curriculum. These are not meant to be one-offs, but strategies that promote critical thinking. We want to emphasize that this happened in an entirely different world. In lots of ways, the motivation behind the Pan Am 103 terrorism was different than the motivation behind 9/11 or the Paris Bombings. For families, learning if their loved one was safe or not took a great deal of time without things like social media ‘mark me as safe’ tools. The news came in really slowly. We are trying to contextualize that experience and the event itself and get it in front of as many people as possible.
K&K: What advice would you give to LIS students looking to engage in cultural heritage work in an archive, library, or museum? What have you learned through your own experience?
- Take as many different internships as you can, at as many different types of institutions as you can, doing as many different things as possible. A lot of the work that you’ll do may be repetitive, but it gets you comfortable with processing a collection.
- Find a mentor. That person could be your boss, or it could be another student, even. It’s really important to share what you’re learning, doing, or reading.
- Recognize that every collection is going to be different. I’ve learned that while there are ‘best practices’ when dealing with a collection, a lot of answers about how to handle a collection end up being ‘it depends.’ It’s a case by case, growing experience.
- Public service is important. Even if you’re a MLIS student on the archives and museums track with an ultimate goal of working behind the scenes, make sure to get face time with the public. Not only do you get to combat this myth that librarians and archivists don’t like to talk to people, but you also get an idea of how people are actually using the materials.
The Pan Am Flight 103/Lockerbie Air Disaster Open Archives will be held Thursday, October 26, 2:00 – 5:00 p.m. and Friday, October 27, 9:00 am – 1:00 p.m. in the Spector Room (Bird Library 608). Remembrance Week is set for Sunday, October 22 – Saturday, October 28. The Rose Laying Ceremony and Remembrance Convocation will be held Friday, October 27 beginning at 2:03pm (the local time of the bombing) at the Place of Remembrance in front of Hall of Languages. All are encouraged to attend.
InfoSpace author Kara Conley also contributed to this post.