BOSTON — Archivists in Boston used to handling documents ranging from budget records to minutes of City Council meetings, along with an occasional file dating to the city’s 17th century founding, have spent the last year processing thousands of sneakers, T-shirts and letters.
It has been a tear-jerking project for the staff of the Boston city archives. These are the mementos left behind at an impromptu memorial built at the site of the 2013 bombing attack on the Boston Marathon, which killed three people and injured 264 at the race’s crowded finish line.
“This has been a unique experience for us. We’ve never done anything like this before,” city archivist John McColgan said during a recent tour of the low-slung building where staff are sorting through the outpouring of mementoes.
The makeshift shrine began in the days after the April 15 attack, as visitors and residents left stuffed animals, flags and other tributes along the metal barricades erected by the police to fence off the site as they searched for clues about the bombers.
The memorial eventually moved to Copley Square, the site of the main branch of the Boston Public Library, and grew to thousands of items. On June 25 it was taken down on the order of then-Mayor Thomas Menino and handed over to city archivists to catalog.
Next week, several hundred of the items — including four wooden crosses memorializing the three who died in the blasts and a university police officer who was shot dead a few days later in a related incident — will return to the square, this time inside the library for an exhibit that will run from April 7-May 11.
The project has been a unique one for the archive staff, largely because the events are so recent said Marta Crilly, a city archivist.
“We are documenting history that we experienced personally, and in many ways that is a big advantage because we are not going to have a gap in the record,” Crilly said. “It’s very fresh.”
The bombing, which was the largest mass-casualty attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, sent ripples of fear through the city and the marathon itself, a more than 100-year-old event that is Boston’s best-attended sporting event and the world’s longest-running annual marathon.
Four days after the attack, most of the metropolitan area went into lockdown as police searched for the two ethnic Chechen brothers suspected of planting two homemade pressure-cooker bombs and later killing a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer as they prepared to flee the city.
The elder of the brothers died during the escape attempt, while survivor Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, now 20, is awaiting trial on charges that carry the threat of execution if he is convicted.
The tragedy drew a wave of responses, including letters from schoolchildren in China, South Korea and Kenya.
“I’m also deeply sorry for all the people that were hurt,” read a letter from a third-grade class in Kenya, the home country of last year’s female Boston Marathon champion, Rita Jeptoo, and male second-place finisher Lelisa Desisa.
Today the letters and signs are held in the city archive, while the sneakers, stuffed animals and other larger items are being held at a Northborough, Mass., facility owned by document management company Iron Mountain.
The exhibit, which will feature a small sampling of the relics, aims to help city residents develop some sense of closure with the bombing, ahead of this year’s marathon, which will be run April 21.
“We knew that this anniversary was going to bring up a lot of emotion and memories for people that were going to be hard,” said Rainey Tisdale, a museum curator who is preparing the exhibit.
“We didn’t want to just throw all that out there on the table and leave people swirling in it. We wanted to help them find some resolution.”