Ashley Maynor (’04, ’13) has a complicated relationship with stuff.
Not just any stuff. Condolence stuff. The things that people send after tragedy occurs. The banners, teddy bears, letters, and more that show up by the truckful. She wants to know what inspires people to send these things and what happens to these pieces of intended solace after the news trucks leave and a new normal begins to set in.
“I’ve always been a little fascinated with the things people keep,” says Maynor, a UT digital humanities librarian. “Objects connect us to our history. They tell us a lot about who we are.”
Her curiosity was piqued by a national tragedy that Maynor herself lived through.
On April 16, 2007, Maynor was working in Blacksburg, Virginia, when the mass shooting at Virginia Tech occurred. While grieving with her community, Maynor began to take notice of all the items being sent to the university.
It took her nearly five years to come to terms with the shooting enough that she could begin her research. Maynor had just begun exploring the April 16th 2007 Condolence Archives—the permanent collection of objects Virginia Tech chose to keep after the shooting—when the school shooting at Sandy Hook happened and changed the trajectory of her project.
The Story of the Stuff
The Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, gave Maynor a chance to start at the beginning of the process. She communicated with people in Newtown by e-mail about how they were going to handle everything sent to them. The town received ten times more stuff than Virginia Tech, including nine semi-trucks full of paper snowflakes, a half million letters, and 65,000 teddy bears, but there was no protocol in place to handle all of it.
After a hundred days, Maynor began making trips to Newtown. Over the course of the next year, she conducted interviews with people who had various views about what should be done with the collection of things sent in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting.
Maynor compiled her work into a seven-chapter interactive web documentary called The Story of the Stuff. Available for free online, the documentary includes photos, video, audio, illustrations, and an interactive timeline.
The documentary was designed for a general audience, but there is also a companion module meant for library and information science students.
“I wanted to make them think about the issues a library or archive might encounter when documenting a tragedy,” Maynor says.
While the documentary doesn’t at all focus on the violence at the root of these tragedies, the violent acts prompted Maynor to start a different sort of project aimed at helping everyday people bring about change using a sign of peace.
Cranes for Change seeks to “inundate the mailboxes of those in a position to effect change” when it comes to gun violence.
When a shooting is reported on the news, members of Cranes for Change receive a custom crane kit by e-mail. The users prints out the kit and folds the cranes, personalizes them as they wish, and sends them by mail to identified stakeholders, such as community leaders or legislators.
Maynor says Cranes for Change was “born out of the frustration of wanting to do more.” She wanted to get people to stop sending stuff after these gun-related tragedies and do something that could help bring real change.
“I see the beauty in [the stuff],” Maynor says. “I have both an appreciation and a complicated relationship with it. Clearly people are moved and want to help. I’d like to redirect that energy in a more positive way.”