Recap: SAA’s 2020 Annual Section Meeting: A History of Collecting Crisis and Tragedy

Even though the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists’ Archival History Section went virtual this year to help prevent the spread of the new global virus*, the meeting succeeded brilliantly. It featured one of the highest number of attendees ever and two superb presentations by experienced professionals aware of the history of the important archives where they work.

The 2019-2020 Archival History Section Chair, Cory Nimer (University Archivist, Brigham Young University), presided over the Zoom presentation, held at 2:30 ET on August 12, 2020–now available for viewing at the SAA website. After an update from SAA Council and a report from Archival History News co-editor Natalie Worsham, Cory announced the winners of the Archival History Article Award for 2020, Melanie Shell-Weiss and Greg Weideman, for two splendid articles. Cory also mentioned the newly elected roster of Archival History Section members who will sit on the Steering Committee for 2020-2021. Starting with 53 online participants, the audience rose to 66 and peaked at 68 around 2:55pm, after the first of the two presenters, Peter Alter (Chicago History Museum), got underway.

Peter Alter, Chief Historian and Director of the Studs Terkel Center for Oral History, Chicago History Museum

Dr. Peter T. Alter, who has spent nearly his entire career as a historian in Chicago, delivered a strongly documented account of the efforts of institutions and community members to record memories and oral histories of traumatic events in the lives of Chicagoans. Alter gave a succinct history of the Chicago History Museum, formerly the Chicago Historical Society, founded in 1856. Briefly mentioning the pioneering collecting of Archibald “Archie” Motley III (1934-2002), who expanded the holdings of the then-historical society to include African Americans and laboring people, Alter explored the variety of materials which the Chicago History Museum has continued to collect about some of the most devastating, deadly, or politically powerful events in the city’s history, including the Great Chicago Fire (1871), the Haymarket Affair (1886), the Eastland Disaster (1915), the Influenza Pandemic (1918-1919), the Chicago Race Riot of 1919, the Freedom Day School Boycott (1963), the Democratic National Convention (1968), and the Haymarket Police Statue Explosion (1970).

The Chicago History Museum documents and presents these crises and tragedies with textual materials, photographs, memorabilia, newspaper accounts, oral histories, and other primary sources, which they display in various forms that are increasingly available through digital exhibitions, online collections, even digitally-enhanced walking tours. This screenshot of Peter Alter’s presentation exemplifies the robust digital program of the Chicago History Museum:

Excerpt, Peter Alter’s presentation, in Zoom. Courtesy of Eric Stoykovich.

The second presenter, Vanessa St. Oegger-Menn, has served as the Pan Am 103 Archivist and Assistant University Archivist at Syracuse University for the past four years, with experience in archives beginning before 2014. The Syracuse Special Collections Research Center is the home to a long-running effort to collect materials related to the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 from Heathrow Airport en route to Detroit. Among the 270 people who perished in the blast which destroyed the plane and several structures on the ground where it landed in Scotland were 25 students enrolled at Syracuse University, along with 10 students from other U.S. universities, all of whom had been studying abroad in London during the autumn of 1988.

Vanessa St. Oegger-Menn, Assistant University Archivist and Pan Am 103 Archivist, Syracuse University Libraries

Nevertheless, as Vanessa explained in a presentation entitled “We Remember Them: Archival Tragedy Response,” all 35 students have been embraced by the Syracuse University Archives as “our 35.” In August 1990, a year and a half after their deaths, the then-University Archivist Amy S. Doherty announced the formal creation of a “special Archive” whose two-fold mission is to collocate and make available materials regarding the disaster, and to serve as “a memory that would enable students and researchers to know in some way what the world has lost by” the deaths of the 35 victims from the United States. In 2005, the Pan Am Flight 103 Archives was broadened to include memorabilia about all 270 victims, as well as individuals and organizations connected to the bombing.

Letter from University Archivist Amy S. Doherty to family of Pan Am 103 victim, August 6, 1990, Gretchen Joyce Dater Family Collection. From “We Remember Them: Archival Tragedy Response,” Vanessa Oegger-Menn, Archival History Section, August 12, 2020, PowerPoint, p. 5. Inside address redacted by AHN editors.

In total, some 400 linear feet of material divided into 115 separate collections comprise the archive. The collections contain thousands of items which run the gamut from newspaper accounts of the trial, artistic responses, documentaries, oral histories of families and friends, photographs of physical memorials, victims’ personal effects, all the way to university records related to the Lockerbie Trial Families Project. The current mission of the Pan Am 103 Archive is to be accessible, interactive, approachable, comprehensive, and involved in communicating the value of archiving tragedies.

Excerpt, Vanessa St. Oegger-Menn’s presentation, in Zoom. Courtesy of Eric Stoykovich.

Part of Vanessa’s outreach on campus encompasses advising the Remembrance and Lockerbie Scholars, who participate in educating themselves and the Syracuse University community, in the words of the finding aid, “about the devastating effects of terrorism.”

The concluding portion of Vanessa’s presentation reflected upon the extensive work of the Society of American Archivists’ Tragedy Response Initiative Task Force, of which Vanessa has been a member since its creation in January 2018. The Task Force created a toolkit for documenting tragedies and their effects on human communities. The toolkit features a draft Bibliography of printed works on the subject of tragedy and crisis archival collecting.

Bringing their work to a close early in 2020, the Task Force has led to the creation of a Crisis, Disaster, and Tragedy Response Working Group within the Society of American Archivists, by approval of the Society’s leadership Council on August 3, 2020.


* The Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archivists was scheduled to be held in Chicago, Illinois. It was held as a virtual-only conference between August 5 and August 8, 2020.

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