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Saving Shooting Memorials


After the deadly shooting on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte a little over a month ago, people did what they so often do. They created memorials for those lost to the violence, leaving behind candles, flowers and handwritten letters. Sarah Delia of member station WFAE reports that now the school is trying to figure out how to preserve this difficult point in its history.

SARAH DELIA, BYLINE: The Kennedy building is one of the oldest on the UNC Charlotte campus, and it is here on April 30 where two students were shot and killed and four others injured on what was the last day of classes.

KATIE HOWELL: It's still just hard to believe it happened here and to a place that should be safe and welcoming and is the home for our students.

DELIA: That's Katie Howell, an archivist at UNC Charlotte, speaking in front of the building.

HOWELL: And then when the memorial was up to just see that outpouring of love, that shared grief that the whole community had was really powerful.

DELIA: Howell points to the dried wax still clinging to the edges of the stairs, frozen from the moment candles dripped over. There are flowers on the steps, some that still have color to them - a brightly painted mannequin head with a peace sign symbol. Dawn Schmitz, the head of the archives unit, says they've tried to be sensitive when removing objects for preservation purposes.

DAWN SCHMITZ: Our practice hasn't been to try to get it immediately because people put it there for a reason. You know, our concern has mostly been about rain and not wanting, especially, paper items to be damaged.

DELIA: People were quick to make their mark with these remembrances after the shooting. Archivist Katie Howell points to the ground.

HOWELL: And then you can see that people have written messages on the bricks in front of Kennedy building - gone but not forgotten, forever in our hearts. So these - I've been talking with facilities how we might be able to save these bricks, if there's a way we can get them out of the paving and preserve them in the archives in some way.

DELIA: And the first step to preserve these items is to collect and transport them to a library next door. Inside, Dawn Schmitz stands next to three long tables pushed together. They're covered with scores of items from the campus memorials - candles, T-shirts, handmade art.

SCHMITZ: It's very important that these materials are preserved because people placed them there because they wanted this event and these people to be remembered. It makes me feel grateful that we can play some role on this campus to help with the healing process.

DELIA: Archivist Katie Howell holds a stack of handmade cards from a group of elementary school students.

HOWELL: These are sweet. I'm sorry that you were scared, and I'm sorry what happened last night - a little drawing of children in a home and hearts. I love you, and you are good. We are good.

DELIA: Of all the objects, Howell says, the letters are hardest to read.

HOWELL: And it hurts me to think that these young people have to even imagine a scenario like this. You know, it's really touching. It's emotional to think about.

DELIA: But they push through those emotions. Howell says this is new territory for them. And so UNCC is connecting with others who have also experienced deadly shootings, like Virginia Tech, as well as professional organizations.

HOWELL: The Society of American Archivists is developing a tragedy response toolkit for archivists who are in this same situation, unfortunately.

DELIA: For now they're still wrestling with what should be saved. Some of the candles have been in the rain and can't be stored long-term. Others they will keep. Peering down in one of the boxes, there was a little flicker. It was one of those battery-powered tealights. Its batteries still switched on, its light still bright.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Delia in Charlotte.

(SOUNDBITE OF TASMAN SONG, “WHEN I FALL”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Delia