Storytelling is the heart of literature.
And the heart of history, too.
History came to Virginia Tech on April 16, when a gunman shot 32 people to death before killing himself. In the weeks since, the university's Center for Digital Discourse and Culture (CDDC) has created the April 16 Archive, an online repository of materials related to the shooting that have been contributed by the public.
Materials include firsthand observations, photographs, sound recordings, media reports, personal writing, official statements, blog posts - anything that can be stored as a digital file.
The center has a long-standing commitment to digital literature. Other CDDC projects include the digital art journal New River and a mirror of the Project Gutenberg site. Not surprising, then, the April 16 Archive is much more than a bulletin board of memories and well-wishes. It's a multifaceted account of a single event contributed by people from the Virginia Tech community and the rest of the world. It will only grow larger as time goes on.
"I heard recently that one of the memorial Web sites related to the 1970 Kent State shootings is still receiving stories and materials today," said Brent Jesiek, the manager of the CDDC. "So, we are really on the leading edge here and anticipate that our submission rate will continue to rise in coming weeks as word spreads."
Jesiek explained that the archive is part of the larger trend of digital memory banks, a concept he says has been greatly furthered by the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University. The George Mason center developed the software infrastructure used by the April 16 Archive, providing an "easy-to-use and intuitive interface so that the public can easily submit and browse their own media and materials related to a given event," Jesiek said.
The center has also built memory banks for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina.
Each digital object in the archive helps cobble together a chronicle no one person could create. Really, it's making possible a new kind of story, one told from a multiplicity of vantage points at once.
That is to say, no one person could have seen and photographed the more than 20 ambulances parked behind the academic buildings on the day of the shootings (as Billy Glynn did), and been a professor at George Mason University whose former student knew someone who was injured in the attack, and was a person held at gunpoint himself (as Mills Kelly was), and have known one of the deceased, 20-year-old Leslie Sherman, well enough to write a loving tribute to her (as her former high school teacher James Percoco did).
The project is a kind of ur-story from which others can spin off their own storytellings. The CDDC intends for the archive to assist "artists, humanists, social scientists, and all other scholars" in researching the event and its documentation. Unlike most sites with multiple contributors, the archive follows the citation protocol of traditional scholarly research. Each contributor provides metadata, including the author's name, the type of object being submitted, the date it was submitted, and so forth.
Some of these metadata are displayed with each entry under the heading "citation information," and some are visible only to administrators or researchers.
It isn't always a matter of reporting facts. On April 16, an anonymous poster submitted an original poem. Six days later, Nicholas Kiersey, an Irish doctoral candidate at Virginia Tech, posted a link to an opinion piece he wrote about the American gun-control debate in the Irish Business Sunday Post.
Since the CDDC encourages submissions from anyone who wishes to participate, the project underlines the power of digital media to allow anyone to act as an artist or a reporter.
"This process gives individual citizen-users more agency to tell their stories in their own words and with their own images," Jesiek said.
To put it another way, as the site's home page declares: "We are all Virginia Tech."
The April 16 Archive is at http://www.april16archive.org.EndText