Founder’s Memorial Library hosts mementos from Feb. 14 archives


A collection of items placed at the temporary memorial for the victims of the February 2008 shooting; shown here are items placed in remembrance of Ryanne Mace. Items placed at both the temporary and permanent memorial are routinely collected by the Regional History Center and stored in the archives of Founders Memorial Library to preserve them.

By Jessi Haish

An old elevator descends.

When the doors open, a rush of air blows in and the basement of the Founders Memorial Library is revealed. The basement contains archives of days gone by. Among all that history, many shelves–and an entire room–are filled with mementos surrounding the events of Feb. 14, 2008.

That day–when Steven Kazmierczak entered a class in Cole Hall and opened fire, killing five students and injuring 21 before killing himself–and the years following have been documented and preserved. The items that resulted are kept in boxes in the basement of Founders Library, within walking distance of Cole Hall itself.

Feb. 14, 2008, the library was one of the first buildings to be evacuated, recalled Cindy Ditzler, university archivist and director of the Regional History Center. By the next day, Ditzler and Joan Metzger, an assistant university archivist at the time, had to start thinking about how they were going to handle the task of documenting everything that had happened on top of their “regular” jobs.

The Regional History Center’s mission is to preserve historical records of the local community. Within days of the shooting, employees knew the shooting this would be a difficult but necessary event to document.

“We both just sat down to come up with some sort of a game plan,” Ditzler said.

It was a large task in the weeks following the shooting, and continues to be a project every time the anniversary approaches. The preservation and documentation of so many items was a project that many people did not know how to handle.

“We relied heavily on other universities,” Ditzler said. “We looked to Virginia Tech when figuring out how to document everything.”

Anything that was sent to the school or left at the memorial was preserved, as well as anything written or recorded about the shooting.

‘The History of This Community’

Although the university receives items on a fairly regular basis, there is an incline of gifts around the time of the anniversary. People bring items that reflected the shooting to the Regional History Center and the items are always accepted: Five NIU candle holders. Five angel statues. Five corsages. Five husky stuffed toys. Five notes.

Sometimes there are six items in a group, when people choose to recognize the shooter as a loss of a life.

The items vary by shape, size and meaning, and come from as far away as other countries and as close as NIU and DeKalb.

“We’ve had wonderful community support with this,” Ditzler said.

It took several years and $60,000 to preserve materials that were involved in the shooting. Written documents and items left at the memorial have been documented and preserved in a lengthy process.

“It was a very expensive and long endeavor,” Ditzler said. “But it’s all very important to the history of this community.”

‘Something That You Can’t Really Be Trained For’

The task wasn’t easy for Ditzler, who was working in the Regional History Center of Founders the day of the shooting.

“It was very difficult trying to document this,” Ditzler said. “You’re trying to live through the experience and emotions as well as move on.”

Annie Oelschlager was also closely involved with the shooting, as she was working security in the library that day. She is involved with the preservation of items from that day, as she also worked in the Regional History Center.

Students from Cole Hall fled the scene that day, many finding refuge in the Holmes Student Center, DuSable Hall, Neptune Hall and Founders Memorial Library. When news broke of the shooting, the building was on lockdown. Oelschlager recalled trying to call 911. The lines were tied up.

“I remember thinking that I didn’t know what to do in a situation like that,” Oelschlager said. “That’s something that you can’t really be trained for.”

Oelschlager, now an anthropology curator for the library, can remember the hectic scene in DeKalb in the days following. She visited a friend at SIU for a sense of normalcy.

However, when she returned to her job at the library, she had to take on the task of documentation.

‘It Ends Some Day’

Early one morning after the shooting, employees went to the makeshift memorials to collect the items for preservation.

“It was a very weird experience,” Oelschlager said. “It kind of felt like we were grave-robbing.”

From there, they documented every piece that was left behind. These items are now a part of history.

“I just remember taking ‘glamour shots’ of everything that was there,” Oelschlager said. “I was photographing things like teddy bears, candles, even a shoe that was there, because we weren’t sure if it was supposed to be there or not.”

After a while, everything slowed down for Oelschlager and the others. Still, it has yet to come to a halt.

“Being around it, you become sort of desensitized after a while,” Oelschlager said. “It has to come to a point where it ends some day.”

Oelschlager recognized the community and worldwide support that NIU received in the time following the shooting, and thinks the documentation was productive.

“I really think we have a good glimpse of what it was like during that time,” Oelschlager said.

The experience that Ditzler has earned with this project has not gone unnoticed. She and Metzger received the 2012 Spotlight Award from The Society of American Archivists for their work. Metzger retired in June 2012.

It is still hard for the people who were involved with the physical representations of that day, but it is possible to move on.

“I find it strange that it’s been five years,” Oelschlager said. “It will always feel a little weird to me because of my connection to that day.”

More information about the documentation and preservation of items can be found at Items and collections in the inventory can be browsed on the website. Lesson plans and other resources are also available for teaching about school violence and tragedy. The website also accepts stories about the shooting that will be contributed to the February 14 Memorial Project.