iSchool students help preserve history of Oso mudslide

By Doug Parry Tuesday, May 10, 2016
Oso mudslide site
The 2014 mudslide in Oso, Washington, killed 43 people.

At 10:37 a.m. on March 22, 2014, a devastating landslide struck near Oso, Washington. Mud and debris engulfed the Steelhead Haven neighborhood, killing 43 people and closing off state Highway 530, the main artery connecting the small town of Darrington to the world.

For days, many Darrington residents took part in the desperate search for their missing friends and neighbors. They ignored official warnings and endured treacherous conditions to scour a debris field that measured nearly a mile wide.

"They wanted to be involved, they wanted to do the work, and they weren’t going to sit on the sidelines,” UW Information School student Katie Mayer said. “The Darrington Historical Society has a very particular experience it wants to capture that conveys specifically what those people went through.”

To help tell and preserve that story, the historical society reached out to the iSchool. A group of Master of Library and Information Science students in 2015 helped establish a place for the historical society to store all of the documents, photos, audio and video it was collecting. This year, Mayer and fellow MLIS students Marissa Gunning and Caitlyn Stephens are organizing the materials in a way that can be sustained for generations.

The project is among dozens that students are pursuing for Capstone, the culmination of their degree program. Capstone connects iSchool students with businesses and organizations to solve real-world information problems. The students will present their projects at the annual Capstone event on May 26.

At the time the mudslide hit, Mayer worked as an editor at The Herald newspaper in Everett, about 30 miles from the site of the mudslide. She said the tragedy had a more profound effect on her than any other story in her 12-year journalism career.

“I remember so vividly how devastating this was to the community and how much people banded together to respond to it, and to grieve together,” she said.

The memories stuck with her as she moved on to pursue her master’s degree at the iSchool, and the connection helped motivate her to take on the Capstone project.

“I brought a lot of knowledge of the event and what happened afterward to it, and I was in a position where I could use what I’ve been learning in school to contribute a lot to the project,” she said.

Mayer, Gunning, and Stephens started by establishing a collection development policy – a set of guidelines for acquiring and managing the hundreds of digital artifacts gathered by the historical society. They then began the work of sifting through the historical society’s materials and building a digital collection that best represents Darrington’s experience.

The historical aspect is what attracted Gunning to the project. The Capstone group’s work will help inform future generations about the mudslide, the subsequent search efforts, and the accounts of those involved.

“I’m excited about being directly involved in the process of the materials' preservation and getting the information to a point that it's accessible, hopefully for decades,” Gunning said.

Residents search for survivors after the Oso mudslide.Using the knowledge organization principles they’ve learned at the iSchool, the students are building a framework that anticipates changing needs for the collection in the coming years.

“We’re getting the materials situated in a manner where, as file formats become obsolete, they'll be able to track changes in a fairly systematic fashion by building the structure now,” Gunning said.

Scott Morris, president of the Darrington Historical Society, said the artifacts being organized by the iSchool students will become the backbone for a website that helps people understand how Darrington experienced the landslide. He plans to provide a curated experience, presented in chronological order with a narrator guiding users through the materials.

The students, Morris said, helped bring structure to a project that had seemed overwhelming.

“They have taken our brainstorming and given it focus and organization, which is exactly what we had hoped for when we reached out to UW.

“We are very, very grateful for the time and dedication they have put into this,” he said. “The archive would still be just a nice idea without all their work. Future groups or volunteers will be able to put energy into the narrated website, because of the solid foundation we now have.”

For the students, the project showcases not only their technical training from the MLIS program, but their commitment to making a positive contribution with their work. In Darrington, a small town of just 1,300 people, their Capstone project will make a lasting impact.

Said Stephens, one of the students involved: “Meeting with people in Darrington, those who are willing to talk to us about their experiences, and working with people at the historical society, it’s really nice to have that sense of community backing for a project.

“It gave us a chance to work on a project where we could combine the things we’d learned in school with something where we could really help out in a community,” she said.