Hip, Square, and in Between: A 1960s College Town Comes to (Digital) Life

By David McCartney

“If you remember the ’60s, you really weren’t there,” goes the familiar saying, particularly among baby boomers. Over the decades the quote has been attributed to many, including Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane, a rock band that exemplified those far-out, psychedelic times. Ms. Slick, or whoever said it first, was certainly on to something. Or maybe on something.

Poster promoting Vietnam War Moratorium, October 1969. Collection no. RG 02.0004.001 Student-Produced Flyers and Handouts Collection

But while the ’60s encompassed an emerging counter-culture – perhaps its most popular image today – the decade also embodied a wide range of experiences among students on U.S. college and university campuses. Political movements, social activities, ROTC classes, fraternity and sorority life, challenges to academic traditions, the sexual revolution, relaxing of student conduct codes, and more: these are the parts that make up the whole, a complex and remarkable historical period. And music. Don’t forget the music.

For Iowa City, home of the State University of Iowa, as it was known until 1964, highlights of this period are documented in a digital exhibit curated and produced as a collaboration among several units of the University Libraries: the University Archives, the Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio, and Preservation and Conservation Services. According to the site, the exhibit is “an immersive content discovery tool made possible by collaborators within and beyond the University of Iowa Libraries.”

1972 SDS Newsletter documenting the Herrnstein incident. Collection no. RG 02.0009.030 Emil Rinderspacher Papers

Recognizing that the 50-year anniversaries of numerous events, both local and national in scope, were approaching, beginning in 2014 I had informal discussions with a cross-section of faculty from several departments to determine what they would like to experience in such an exhibit for research and instruction purposes. Political science, history, journalism, English, military science, and other academic and service areas were contacted. I also reached out to about a dozen alumni to seek out their ideas.

Curation followed, based in part on these conversations but also based on previous reference experience. Popular topics that evolved for the site include civil rights, student life, politics and protest, the arts, the second-wave feminist movement, gay rights (the term LGBTQ did not come into popular usage until recently), and popular culture. Technical information about creation of the site is included in a colophon linked from the exhibit’s home page. The resulting exhibit, “Uptight and Laid-back: Iowa City in the Sixties,” was released in 2016, featuring content selected from over 40 collections across the University Archives. Occasionally, new content is added as additional resources are identified.

Screen shot of the landing page for the “Uptight & Laid-Back” exhibit.

While the title declares “the Sixties,” I determined the site’s timeline bookends as November 1959, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited the campus, and January 1973, following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords and what was billed at the time as “the last anti-war demonstration on campus.”

Interactive features of the site include a set of layered campus maps spanning 1958 to 1975, and a link for alumni and others to submit their own stories or images for inclusion on the site. Dynamic content includes a 1960 University of Iowa newsreel, a half-hour documentary recounting the 1967 Dow riot at the student union, the inauguration of Howard Bowen as university president in 1964, and U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren speaking at the dedication of the new law school commons in 1962.

The site also highlights digitally-reformatted audio recordings of selected poetry readings and literary ‘happenings,’ thanks to the presence of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Featured individuals include Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Margaret Walker Alexander, Jorge Luis Borges, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Some take-aways:

  • Collaboration takes time. The DSPS staff were particularly enthusiastic and supportive, as this is in keeping with the Studio’s mission to provide faculty the opportunity to access digital content pertinent to their research and instruction needs. The project also enabled University Archives to work closely with Preservation and Conservation in selecting audiovisual content that was at risk of loss. An important consideration to keep in mind from the outset is allowing the collaborating units adequate lead time and to set realistic schedules for completion, on account of workflow demands of other projects.
  • If you build it, they may not come. The feature allowing alumni to contribute content is the most disappointing outcome of the project to date. Despite a column about it in the our alumni magazine (I write a quarterly column, “Old Gold,” for the print edition as well as electronic editions 10 times/year via the university’s newsfeed and social media) and news releases via the university’s strategic communication office, there have been only three submissions to date. The alumni relations office and the library have received many positive comments about the site but, alas, few submissions. With editor approval I would like to write a reminder piece soon, as 50-year anniversary event dates continue in the time ahead and to confer with the alumni relations office about reaching out to specific affinity groups to inform them of this option.
  • Collecting efforts are still necessary. Our holdings are generally strong in this area, and my predecessor Earl Rogers collected much ephemera from this period soon after he began work here in 1970. However, the archives still has inadequate documentation of the experiences of African-American, LGBTQ, and other groups of students of this time. Again, I need to make the time to work with alumni relations for specific and targeted outreach.

To learn more about the site and my experiences, please plan to attend the College and University Archives Section Meeting in Austin on Saturday, August 3 from 10-11:15 a.m., or watch for the shared notes from that meeting.

I didn’t enter college until fall 1974, so I have no memory of the ‘60s in the way that Grace Slick (or whoever) meant. Nevertheless, I hope that “Uptight and Laid-back…” continues to serve as a useful and entertaining resource. You dig?

David McCartney, C.A., is the University of Iowa archivist, a position he has held since 2001. He has master’s degrees in history and library science, both from the University of Maryland at College Park, and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is immediate past president of the Midwest Archives Conference.

Campus Unrest at 50: Commemorating the Legacy of Dissent at Queens College

By Annie Tummino and Rachel Kahn

Queens College, City University of New York, was a microcosm of campus unrest in 1969, as multiple streams of dissent rocked the campus. The 50th anniversary of 1969 served as the perfect opportunity for current staff of the Special Collections and Archives (SCA) department to create an exhibit commemorating that memorable year. Untangling the events of 1969 was tricky business, as protests escalated in quick and dizzying succession. Moreover, this was our first experience putting together an exhibit.

Several positive outcomes resulted from this project. First, we possess a much better understanding of Queens College history in the late 1960s, as well as gaps in our collections that need to be filled. Second, we understand how to put together an effective exhibit, a skill that will carry over into future work. Third, and perhaps best of all, the exhibit served as a platform for outreach with community members, faculty, and donors, leading to increased involvement in the archives.

Sit-In, 1969, Queens College Communications Photographs.

1969 at Queens College
Two movements predominated during the 1968/1969 academic year at Queens College: anti-racist Black and Puerto Rican students sought self-determination and control over the Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge (SEEK) Program, while Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) targeted corporations like G.E. and Dow Chemical, exposing how they profited from the war in Vietnam. The movements were organized simultaneously and independently.


In 1966, the New York State legislature launched the SEEK Program to open the City University of New York to a new generation of working-class students. In 1969, the Queens College SEEK population was almost exclusively Black and Puerto Rican, but its teaching and administrative staff were almost entirely white. Informed by political ideologies of leaders like Malcolm X and organizations such as the Black Panthers and Young Lords, these students banded together to fight for autonomy over the curriculum and personnel of the SEEK program.

Meanwhile, predominantly white students, many of whom were active in the Queens College Chapter of SDS, led protests against the Vietnam War, taking aim at military and corporate recruiters on campus. As the students’ tactics escalated, so did the responses of the Queens College administration, leading to suspensions and arrests. To fight these crackdowns, an ad-hoc committee formed to fight for student rights and academic freedom on campus.

In the fall of 1968, a popular Marxist professor named Sheila Delany was fired (or technically, not rehired) by the English Department. The demand to “Reappoint Sheila Delany” became one of the rallying cries of the ad-hoc coalition, along with a demand to drop charges against students who had been suspended for disrupting the visit of a G.E. recruiter at the College Placement Bureau, and to reject the Max-Kahn Referendum, a CUNY policy which stated that the administration did not have to disclose the reasons when they chose not to reappoint faculty.

The SEEK activists won several of their demands, starting with the appointment of the first African American director. With increased autonomy, SEEK’s personnel and curriculum diversified, and Queens College SEEK became a truly innovative and representative educational program. Many of the demands of SDS and the ad-hoc committee were not met; however, significant changes to campus governance were made. Most significantly, an Academic Senate which gave voice to non-tenured faculty and students was established for the first time.

Lessons and New Directions
Co-curating the exhibit was equal parts daunting and exciting. We wanted to make sure that each part of the story was well represented, which was challenging for a few reasons. First, the bulk of our materials consisted of letters, flyers, and newspapers. While these print-based materials contained lots of relevant information, they often weren’t particularly eye catching.  Luckily, we were able to add visual interest by locating several relevant photographs in a recent unprocessed addition to our College Photographs Collection. We also had to learn to think like curators – figuring out which pieces were symbolic of larger events and would help the viewer understand the bigger picture. We worked hard to arrange the materials in a logical fashion, with text that was neither too long nor too short. This involved lots of staring from a distance, editing, and rearranging!

SEEK wheel
SEEK Coalition Flier, circa January 1969, Michael Wreszin Papers.

In terms of content, we wanted to represent both the anti-war and SEEK protests accurately and equitably. Unfortunately, the SEEK rebellion was not as well represented in our collections, illustrating the need for new and intentional documentation efforts. We did our best with what we had, including newspapers, a few key fliers, and information from a memoir by the Dean of Students. SCA also reached out to SEEK, borrowing a photograph for the exhibit, and utilizing and referencing a display located in the SEEK office.

SCA is staffed by a single full-time department head, along with several part-time archivists, student assistants, and graduate fellows. With the opening of a part-time position in February, SCA prioritized hiring someone with community documentation and oral history skills, who could help remedy gaps in our collections. We were thrilled to add Obden Mondesir, who has extensive experience managing oral history projects at the Weeksville Heritage Center, to our team. Obden is currently working on a historical treatment of the Queens College SEEK program and reaching out to existing contacts to gather names for possible interviews. We are excited to start this process with an interview of William Modeste, a counselor who has worked with SEEK since its inception at Queens College in 1966.

Rachel Kahn and Wally Rosenthal at the exhibit.

Outreach and Engagement
It was fantastic to interview figures who were involved with the events of 1968/1969, including Sheila Delany (who went on to have a 36-year tenure at Simon Fraser University, pioneering gender studies and a Marxian approach to literature in many books and articles) as well as Wally Rosenthal, one of the student leaders of the anti-war demonstrations (who went on to serve as an “openly red” shop steward in his union). These interviews provided broader context for the events and helped clarify the narrative. For example, we assumed Sheila’s leftist politics had gotten her fired. Only from the interview did we understand the role that sexism played. As Sheila reported, she was told by the English Department Chair, “You could be a fascist or a communist, we don’t care if you’re charming enough.” She was also attacked as having an “abrasive” personality. From Wally we gained a better understanding of the thinking behind occupations and other disruptive tactics used in 1969. As quoted in the exhibit, the students were “protesting the administration’s complicity with corporations that produced weapons and other products used by the U.S. military in its horrific assault on the people of Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries.” This anti-war position wasn’t always clear in the fliers from the period, which tended to focus on battles with the administration over suspensions and arrests. We also added panels that provided context for Sheila and Wally’s lives and continued activism since 1969.

The exhibit has also supported curriculum integration and programming. This past spring, we worked with a member of the history faculty to incorporate archival instruction into the class “America in the 1960s.” In addition to participating in a document analysis exercise and visiting the archives for research appointments, students were given the opportunity to write a reflection essay on the exhibit for extra credit. We are currently working with an English professor to incorporate primary sources into a class being offered this fall titled “Literature and Human Rights,” including a unit on the peace movement which will feature the exhibit, and Wally Rosenthal as a guest speaker. Finally, this September Sheila Delany is visiting Queens College all the way from Canada. We plan to track down additional 1969 associates to participate in a reception and Q & A, extending the invitation to current faculty and student activists. We hope this will be an opportunity not only to reminisce, but to discuss political parallels to today and how new generations of activists can bring the fight forward for a more just world.

You can preview the exhibit here and learn more about Queens College Special Collections and Archives here.

Annie Tummino is Head of Special Collections and Archives at the Benjamin S. Rosenthal Library, Queens College. Prior to that she worked as the Archivist at SUNY Maritime College and as a Project Archivist at several New York-based institutions. Outside of her paid work she organizes with National Women’s Liberation and volunteers for the Redstockings Archives for Action. She received her Masters of Library and Information Studies and Archives Certificate from Queens College in December 2010.

Rachel Kahn is an Archives Assistant at Special Collections and Archives at the Benjamin S. Rosenthal Library. She will be obtaining her MLS from Queens College in summer 2019. Previously, she obtained her MA in Cinema Studies in 2013 from San Francisco State University, where she became the first media librarian for the film department. She has done archival work with such institutions as the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the Museum of the Moving Image, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and HBO.

A Campus Divided

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Visitors engage with the A Campus Divided exhibit. Image courtesy University of Minnesota Libraries.

By Kate Dietrick

In August 2017 an exhibit titled A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anti-Communists, Racism, and Antisemitism at the University of Minnesota, 1930-1942 opened in Elmer L. Andersen Library, the home of Archives and Special Collections at the University of Minnesota. The exhibit was a culmination of years of original research pulling from archival materials to tell the story of racism and surveillance of students on campus during the interwar years.

My involvement, as Archivist for the Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, dates back to 2013 when I befriended Professor (now Emeritus) Riv-Ellen Prell, who was then-director of the Center for Jewish Studies. In conversation she asked what, if anything, we had in the Upper Midwest Jewish Archives that related specifically to antisemitism at the University of Minnesota. I told her we didn’t have much – I had anecdotal stories from conversations with Jewish community members, but no concrete evidence of antisemitic policy by university administration. Nevertheless, I encouraged her to research the topic in the archives and should she find ample resources, we could mount an exhibit in Andersen Library. This type of exhibit would be somewhat new for us – most of our exhibits showcase engaging and eye-catching items from the collection, not original research by our patrons.

exhibit sign pointing upstairs
Signage directs visitors to the exhibit. Image courtesy University of Minnesota Libraries.

The topic grew as Professor Prell brought on Sarah Atwood, a PhD candidate in American Studies, and through two years of research they uncovered documentation in the archives of targeted university administration policies and actions against black, Jewish, and progressive students on campus. On my end as archivist, I helped facilitate research and coordinated with our exhibit designer Darren Terpstra to get the exhibit edited, designed, mounted, and publicized. From August to December of 2017, twenty-four panels were hung across two floors of the library.

Attention for the A Campus Divided was beyond anything we had experienced before, as thousands of people flocked to Andersen Library to view the exhibit. Not only did news coverage appear in nearly every local paper, but the opening event and talk was held to a sold out attendance. One portion of the exhibit invited people to share their thoughts and reflections with Post-it note comments. By the time the exhibit ended, 565 Post-it note comments were left by community members who wanted to share their feelings, both positive and negative.

Post-it notes containing comments left by community members line the walls. Image courtesy University of Minnesota Libraries.

As voices surged to respond to what had been uncovered, University President Eric Kaler issued an official statement that addressed the exhibit and called for the creation of the President’s and Provost’s Advisory Committee on University History. The committee led to the formation of a Task Force on Building Names and Institutional History, which recently published a 126-page report on their findings. In it, the task force recommended that the Board of Regents change the name of four buildings on campus in light of their findings.  On April 26th, the Regents voted 10-1 against renaming despite vocal protests from both faculty and students.

The journey from small exhibit in the library to heated Board of Regents debates was, frankly, somewhat naively unforeseen on our end. If you are planning to take on such work in your college or university archives, here are some of my takeaway suggestions:

Set up an advisory group
From the offset, curator Riv-Ellen Prell knew to set up an advisory group for the exhibit. The advisory group, pulled from campus and community, were kept apprised of the ongoing research and offered suggestions and leadership as it became clear that the impact of the exhibit was far more expansive than expected. Use this type of group not only for support but also guidance on new avenues of research or clarity. Research is stronger with peer advisors.

Document document document
Like any strong project, keep meticulous records of your research. If the exhibit is controversial, people will question its findings. Keep track of the collection, box, and folder of not only every single item that is showcased in the exhibit, but also of the primary source documents that can be used to back up every single assertion in the exhibit. Do all of this work before the exhibit opens and collate that information in a concise document with clean, standardized citation layout. People will come for the receipts; be ready.

Allow critique
Critique of the findings of an exhibit such as this can and should happen. As with any sort of research, rebuttals or varied readings of your findings should be welcomed – this is the beginning of a conversation, not the end of a soliloquy. Plan community conversation events to let voices be heard.

Take Credit
A Campus Divided was mounted as an exhibit in Andersen Library as part of our regular exhibits lineup that showcases materials from Archives and Special Collections. Because of this, it was not always strongly branded as part of the University Libraries, nor did I as the archivist who mounted the exhibit add myself to the list of co-curators. As attention for the exhibit grew outside of the libraries and the university, these things fell to the wayside. None of the publicity included my name or role in the exhibit; I could have named myself co-curator but I did not. The work of our exhibit designer Darren Terpstra is also rarely mentioned. Make sure, from the start, that credits are clear, and that an exhibit is branded as part of the library if you hope to get credit for the work that you do.

Let go
That being said, let it go. After years of working on the exhibit, we had no idea how it would be received. There was no initial intention of pushing to change the names of buildings around campus, and yet this became the rallying cry from those who viewed the exhibit. Students became very energized–writing articles in the campus newspaper, staging protests, and demanding change. These students created life for the findings of the exhibit long after the exhibit itself was taken off the walls. You have no idea where the energy of such an exhibit will lead; it is wonderful when you let it go.

Know that timing might change the context
A Campus Divided happened to open only a few weeks after the events in Charlottesville, a time when many people were openly talking about institutionalized racism in the United States. Know that if your exhibit highlights racist history at your institution, current events or recently enacted policies might shine a further spotlight or give new context to the exhibit. There is nothing you can do to mitigate this, but be prepared for potential shifting attention.

The reverberations of the A Campus Divided exhibit are still being felt on campus. As I look back, what I tend to focus on was that the exhibit showcased the power of the archives. This exhibit illustrated perfectly how history, in particular primary source research conducted in the archives, can have a relevant and powerful impact on our present day. Conversations about the history of our institutions are undoubtedly tough and constantly ongoing, but these conversations are worth having if we hope to move forward as equitable and inclusive institutions.

A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anti-Communists, Racism, and Antisemitism at the University of Minnesota, 1930-1942 is still available online – visit acampusdivided.umn.edu to learn more.

Kate Dietrick is the Archivist for the Upper Midwest Jewish Archives at the University of Minnesota Libraries, a position she has held since March 2013. Prior to that time she worked at the Whitney Museum of American Art and for the Kress Foundation. She earned her MLIS from Pratt Institute and BA from St. Olaf College.

Development from Negatives

by Christina Zamon

Since the beginning of 2018, my team and I at Georgia State University worked tirelessly to pull together an exhibit featuring our photographic collections while speaking to the challenges of preserving the over 8 million photographs and negatives in our collections. The idea was to build a donor base and reach a broader audience beyond our traditional subject areas while garnering financial support for photographic conservation efforts.

For some background, many of our collecting areas have an archivist that serves as a curator for those collections. Our photographic collections, however, do not have a full-time professional archivist overseeing them and are heavily used by a multitude of constituencies. Our collections also contain the most comprehensive set of photographs documenting 20th century Atlanta including the photo morgue for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Many of the negatives in our collections are in fair-to-poor condition necessitating extensive conservation work. Without an in-house conservator, we must pay to send these out to a qualified conservator and generally spend $5,000 or more per year on approximately 30 negatives. We will all be dead and gone (and many of our negatives as well), if we continue at this rate.

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This boomerang showing a damaged negative that has been restored was used in online promotional materials to demonstrate impact. Courtesy George State University.

In order to address our challenges in preserving these negatives, we decided to try many new ideas, maybe too many, all at once. This exhibit was to be only the second regular exhibit opening for the library in its history and we decided to pull out all the stops. My curatorial team worked on creating two physical exhibits, one to be housed in the exhibit gallery on the 8th floor of Library South, and a smaller “satellite” exhibit in our Clarkston Campus library. In addition to the physical exhibits, they produced a complementary online exhibit to allow us to feature as many photographs from our collections as we could. The online exhibit also functioned as a test ground for Omeka Everywhere. After advocating for over a year I was finally able to purchase technology for our gallery and worked with our administration, Digital Scholarship Librarian, and Digital Library Services Unit to purchase a touch screen table top display where we could feature the online exhibit in the gallery alongside our physical exhibit.

As if that weren’t enough, our new Assistant Director of Development for the library wanted to test out some new fundraising ideas: not one, but two! So, we launched the library’s first crowdfunding page to pay for the exhibit and catering for the opening. That campaign ran from July 1 through the exhibit opening on September 23. Besides the crowdfunding campaign, we also decided to have an “adopt-a-negative” fundraising component to raise money to have one or more negatives restored by a professional conservator. The idea was that we could launch the “adopt-a-negative” component with the opening of the physical exhibit (so go from fundraising for the exhibit to fundraising for the collections) by having a room set up with print outs of damaged negatives and examples of negatives that were beyond saving. The adoption process could then be carried on throughout the year through our Omeka exhibit.


Clarkston Exhibit
Satellite exhibit at the Clarkston campus. Courtesy Georgia State University.

As we have difficulty drawing an audience for events on weekday evenings, due to traffic as well as finding the location of Library South, we decided to try something different. We decided to hold the opening on a Sunday afternoon so that folks could go to church and come downtown for the afternoon. We promoted the exhibit opening wherever we could, including the Decatur Book Festival, at tables in the library, in the university calendar and the Atlanta Celebrates Photography booklet, as well as the student newspaper. Our library marketing staff was set to announce it on the Visix displays across all campuses, in community calendars, etc.

Everything was planned out and the hope was to draw new donors and folks who had never stepped foot through our doors. Now, I had been told that “no one comes downtown on the weekends” and that most people were only downtown during the week because they were there for work and school and were gone on the weekends. But the weekends also mean free parking, which was heavily advertised. We also had activities for guests including free green screen photos where you get to put yourself in a historic Atlanta photograph and either get a postcard print or email it to yourself. And of course, you could adopt a negative and get the digital files for your own personal use. What could possibly go wrong!? Almost everything…


One of the green screen photographs created during the exhibit opening. Visitors could have their photo taken against a green screen and inserted into a historic photograph. Courtesy George State University.

There were things we were aware of and didn’t factor in and then there were things that did not even cross our radar. The biggest mistake? Trying to do all these new things at once. Had we thought more carefully, it would have been better to introduce these new ideas gradually. Not only did our exhibit focus on two things, collections and preservation, we decided to move the event from a weeknight to a weekend, and no, free parking did not draw the masses.

Beyond these issues we ran into other problems. Our marketing staff, as it turns out, did not do all the marketing that was discussed or expected. Our crowdfunding raised more than we had expected ($2,000 out of our $5,500 goal), but still fell short and did not cover all expenses incurred by the exhibit, especially the catering, which cost more than anticipated because it took place on a weekend.

Ultimately, 14 people attended the event; all but two of them were friends or family of the two exhibit curators. There were only two people, both graduate students, who made their way up to the exhibit gallery because they saw the directional signage down in the library. Not one person came to the event as a result of any of our social media or marketing. There were more of us working at the event than attendees, so it was a struggle not to have five people attending to each one person who walked into the gallery.

In the end, we had zero adoptions of negatives in person and to date, none online. We did not grow our donor base as hoped and did not use our existing donor base for the library as leverage. There were several lessons learned:

  1. Focus the exhibit on one topic. In this case, it should have been focused solely on preservation.
  2. Pick one fundraising activity per event. We should have focused solely on the “adopt-a-negative” fundraiser and leveraged our existing donor base by sending out promotional materials to those donors.
  3. There were too many people and activities involving a multitude of deadlines. This led to people dropping the ball, missing deadlines, or failing to follow through on assignments. Had we been more focused on one activity, we would not have overburdened staff members.

With these lessons in mind, we are now planning another exhibit launch in the fall of 2019. We will continue with the two physical exhibits and the Omeka exhibit in response to requests from the library administration, but we will likely drop the fundraising component or will pick one fundraiser. We will also hold the opening from 4-6 pm on a weekday and ensure that it is promoted to all of our donors and to the larger Atlanta metro area. Making these changes should ensure a better turnout and return on investment!

Christina Zamon is the Head of Special Collections and University Archives at Georgia State University, a position she has held since September 2016. Prior to that time, she served as Head of Archives and Special Collections at Emerson College. She is the author of The Lone Arranger: Succeeding in a Small Repository. She is currently a member of the College and University Archives Section’s Steering Committee and previously served as chair of the section (2014-2015).

Exhibiting in the Wake of Tragedy: an Isla Vista Remembrance

By Julia Larson

Putting together exhibits of archival and library material can be fun and a good learning experience for all involved. But what if the topic of the exhibit is tragedy? How do you exhibit materials that affected every member of a campus community? What can you do as staff and faculty to help those who have been affected the most, the students? By working with students, and letting them have a voice in choosing materials and designing some of the exhibition rooms, we tried to create a space for healing and promote compassion.

On May 23, 2014, a young man killed six University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) students and injured 14 others. In the wake of the tragedy, spontaneous memorials sprung up in the seaside college town of Isla Vista, where the rampage took place. A UCSB graduate student, Melissa Barthelemy, was approached by undergraduates who asked her to find a way to save the items so that they would not be discarded. She began taking care of the materials in situ (sleeving paper cards, working with the property managers on removal of dead flowers, leaving notebooks for students and community members to write their thoughts and prayers). Barthelemy, a graduate student in history, then began working with librarians Rebecca Metzger and Annie Platoff to form a committee to deal with the memorial items and work with the Library’s Special Research Collections Department to collect and archive the materials. Their Ad hoc Memorial Preservation Committee worked closely with the university administration and Student Affairs Division, as well as the History Department and property owners to collect and preserve cards, letters, candles, and other ephemera. Barthelemy became the project manager for the entire project, and Platoff was the curator of the collection. They worked with the Public History Department to have undergraduate student interns earn credits to organize and scan hundreds of cards and notes during the fall 2014 quarter. By winter quarter 2015, a plan to exhibit the materials for the one-year anniversary had been decided upon and a history class was offered as an opportunity for students to get hands-on experience handling archive and exhibition materials. The problem was location.

In 2015, the UCSB Library was nearing the final stretch of a 3 year, $80 million renovation and addition, and space was tight in the portions of the library that were not under construction. With so many students affected by the tragedy, the normal library exhibit spaces would not work. The committee did not want students who see the library as a safe and quiet space to study to encounter materials from the tragedy in a hallway exhibit or in the normal Special Collections exhibit areas. The library needed a space that was on campus, public enough to encourage visitation, but private enough for students and family members to visit and grieve in peace. The only space that fit the criteria was overflow office space, where a few library departments had moved temporarily during construction. It was a World War II-era gymnasium building, a holdover from when UCSB was a Marine Air Base, halfway between the History Department and the library, near the center of campus. It consisted of nearly 9000 square feet of office space, with a maze of windowless rooms, a mix of large rooms with long blank walls and smaller rooms, perfect for the university counselors to talk to visitors privately, if needed. The only catch was that library staff were not moving out of their offices until April 30, and the exhibit was to open on May 20, just in time for the one-year anniversary memorial.

A history class, taught by Professors Ann Plane and Randy Bergstrom, divided students up into two main groups: students working on the exhibit, and students working on processing the collection for the archive. Annie Platoff supervised the students processing the items (close to 50 cubic feet, and a couple thousand items) into the collection so that they could be put on display in the exhibit. Melissa Barthelemy supervised the students in the exhibit planning, design, and construction. She recruited me (since I am her spouse) to be the Exhibit Installation Coordinator and work with the students on the layout and construction of the exhibit, since I had worked at a number of museums in the past, though at the time I was working at the UCSB Library. Since this was in addition to my full-time job, I worked with a group of students and volunteers every evening from 7 p.m. until midnight most days during May to construct the exhibit, entitled We Remember Them: Acts of Love and Compassion in Isla Vista.

We Remember Them room. Photo by Tony Mastres; courtesy UCSB Library.

Many in-kind donations of time and resources flowed in—the UCSB Art Museum donated the use of 16 exhibit cases, the Library donated the use of a large video monitor to display the digital images of the memorial sites, Facilities donated their custodial services staff to clean the exhibit space, Associated Students donated materials to be put on display, Office of Student Life organized volunteers to help staff the exhibit, and Counseling Services brought in counselors for emotional support. And even the students in the class brought their friends and partners along to help with the exhibit installation. A student in the class who was an art major created the image for the publicity materials, a recent graduate who had taken many photos of the spontaneous memorial sites became the project photographer, a graduate student in psychology became the exhibit supervisor, and a few students worked both on processing the collection and installing the exhibit—this gave them the opportunity to pick out the items that would work best for each exhibit case.

Floor plan of exhibition rooms with suggested path. Image courtesy of Melissa Barthelemy.

The exhibit space was defined as seven interconnected rooms, with auxiliary space left over for a volunteer kitchen, office, exhibit prep room, and two small rooms designated as ‘counseling rooms’ for the counseling staff to use. Long hallways extended around the center rooms, which provided space for the large chalkboards from a spontaneous memorial site (with messages written by community members and sealed for preservation), and new cork boards for visitors to hang notes and messages on. The first portion of the exhibit honored the lives of the victims, and contained biographies approved by their family members. An exhibit case showed items left at the memorial sites that had specific messages for each victim. The next two rooms showed the outpouring of support and condolence materials from the sites of spontaneous memorials. Exhibit cases highlighted each of the spontaneous memorial sites at four of the sites of violence, with cards, mementos, origami cranes, candles, and graduation leis. Photos of the memorial service held in the UCSB stadium which was attended by 23,000 people, a photo panorama of the paddle out (1000 surfers on a calm ocean), the memorial candlelight vigil, and a video message of condolence from Vice President Joseph Biden filled the next rooms. One room also highlighted how those affected had channeled their energy into gun reform, mental health awareness, and a feminist response to violence.  Two more rooms showed how the community has come together, with a Memorial Garden, scholarships in the name of each victim, messages of support for the first responders, and a space for visitors to write their own thoughts in comment books. We chose digital photographs from student photographers, local and university newspapers, and a few images from international news sources for display in the exhibit. A local printing business worked a few late nights as we sent them high resolution images for them to print onto 16×20 foam core, with another piece of foam core attached to the back, so that all we had to do was put nail into the wall and hang the photos from the strip of foam. Another local frame shop devised plexi-glass holders for some of the cards and hand-colored paper hearts from local school children, which allowed for quick, easy, and cost-effective display. The fragile and simple display of materials in frameless plexi emphasized the spontaneous nature of the materials on display. As a flexible overflow space, most of the walls were fairly sturdy drywall, however others were plastic, and still others were cubicle walls that hid various electrical or plumbing features in certain rooms. Two rooms had very old track lighting, but most were the standard office fluorescent lights; some rooms had standard office carpet, but two other rooms and the hallways had the bare, original 1942 basketball floor.

Come Together/ Continuing events room. Photo by Tony Mastres; courtesy UCSB Library.

A room apart from the main flow of the exhibit was the Reflection Room—it was largely designed by the students and featured comfortable couches, mood lighting, colorful posters, and was designed as a place for them to ‘chill’ and relax. It became the place where families and friends of the victims could sit and talk and grieve together. In total, there was about 6000 square feet of exhibition space, spanning nine rooms. Since the exhibit was dependent upon students and volunteers for staffing, we planned to be open only five hours each day for four weeks, ending just after graduation in late June. After faculty, students with their parents, staff, and even the Chancellor visited the exhibit over graduation weekend, the exhibit was extended another six weeks. In total, over 1800 visitors came through the exhibit, some only once, and some returned multiple times.

Reflection Room. Photo by Tony Mastres; courtesy of UCSB Library.

There are a few takeaways from this experience. Not all communities grieve in the same way after events like this. While the tragedy did not take place on campus, it was just two blocks away – in the center of the Isla Vista community, where the students go to hang out, eat, work, and where most of them live, in one of the most densely populated unincorporated areas in the western U.S. The students working on the exhibit wanted to reclaim that seaside town through the Reflection Room, they needed to remind themselves of the Isla Vista before the tragedy. And the staff and faculty needed to remind themselves that we are all one community, both town and gown. The effort to get all of the various departments and units to work together and contribute to this exhibit is not to be underestimated; bureaucracy does not disappear, but can sometimes be ignored if necessary.  In the end, the success of the exhibit was not based on numbers of visitors, or length of time it was open. But it was in the ability of the students to come together and create something out of tragedy, to find ways to grieve collectively, and heal as a community.

Julia Larson is the Reference Archivist for the Architecture and Design Collection at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In 2015, she was working at the UCSB Library when she was asked to be the Exhibit Installation Coordinator for the We Remember Them: Acts of Love and Compassion in Isla Vista memorial exhibit. She is currently working on an upcoming exhibit, UCSB Campus Architecture: Design and Social Change, which opens in January 2018.