Project to Digitize May 4 Collection Provides Worldwide Access to Archives

Nearly five decades have passed since Ohio National Guardsmen fired into a gathering of protesting students on the campus of Kent State University, killing four, wounding nine and impacting generations.


This international tragedy has never lost its relevance. Whether embraced or criticized, it is a living and breathing chapter in Kent State’s past, present and future.


Individuals from around the world, from the young to the elderly, from numerous disciplines and backgrounds, have sought more information about the events that surround that fateful day.


Through a grant from the National Historical Publications & Records Commission (NHPRC), Kent State University Libraries launched a project to digitize some of the most used portions of the extensive May 4 Collection. The two-year project, titled Kent State Shootings: Actions and Reactions, digitally captures more than 35 cubic feet (approximately 50,000 documents) of materials to allow users from anywhere to explore the contents through free, online access.


University Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives project team, led by Virginia Dressler, digital projects librarian, and Cara Gilgenbach, head of Special Collections and Archives, has worked diligently and is scheduled to complete their task by this September.


More than 26 of the 35 collections have already been digitized and are accessible through Special Collections and Archives’ website. This is convenient for educators who want to incorporate the materials into their curriculum. Professor of Sociology Setsuko Matsuzawa, Ph.D., at the College of Wooster includes the digital collection as a resource for her course on social movements.

Karen Cunningham and Idris Kabir Syed, co-instructors of the course titled May 4, 1970, and Its Aftermath, help Rhea Hairston use digital archives of the May 4 Collection for her project involving Tent City.


“I wanted my students to study activism as part of a historical event,” Dr. Matsuzawa says. “When I saw that the May 4 materials were being digitized, I knew the collection would be a great resource.”


Closer to home, Kent State students are gaining an education on May 4 through the course May 4, 1970, and Its Aftermath, originally created and taught by Jerry Lewis, professor emeritus of sociology, and Thomas Hensley, professor emeritus of political science. Current co-instructors Idris Kabir Syed, associate professor of Pan-African Studies, and Karen Cunningham, associate professor in the School of Peace and Conflict Studies, are in their third year of teaching the course. They and their students heavily rely on the digital items in the May 4 Collection.


The course studies the events in the ’60s that led to the incident on May 4, 1970, and those that followed, including the controversy over constructing the Gym Annex, the legal trials, the politics and the role of commemorations and memorials. The class takes two field trips to Special Collections and Archives, located in University Library, for an introduction to the physical materials of the May 4 Collection by University Archivist Lae’l Hughes-Watkins. She gives an overview of the archives, which are organized in more than 300 cubic feet of boxes, and guides the students through the online platform, providing instructions on how to navigate the digital collection.


“The NHPRC grant made it possible for us to add a significant amount of content to our May 4 digital repository, such as photographs, artwork, correspondence, flyers, posters and more,” Ms. Hughes-Watkins says.


The ability to access the content without having to camp out in the library is appreciated by the students in the May 4 class who use the resource for a final project of their choosing.


“These days, students learn differently,” Mr. Syed says. “They’re used to experiencing things through a digital platform. This accessibility allows them to make connections digitally that they may not make physically.”


This semester’s projects include comparing Kent State’s tragedy to those at Jackson State University in Mississippi and South Carolina State University at Orangeburg; the study of student activism groups then and now; relaying the events from the guardsmen’s perspective; Tent City; who was at fault for the shootings; and the artwork, music and people who inspired the anti-war movement before and after May 4.


Robin Burkhardt, now a senior peace and conflict studies major, remembers researching for her project for the 2016 course.


“I was inspired by an oral history from someone who was a child in Walls Street Elementary School at the time of the shootings,” she says of the picture book she created that illustrates the incident from the perspective of a child.


Positioned near the Kent Campus, the school’s playground equipment was damaged by a military tank.


“I didn’t know about the archives before taking that class,” Ms. Burkhardt admits. “I still access the materials. There is so much there, and it’s right at your fingertips. Everybody can have access to this information now.”


Students in Associate Professor Todd Hawley’s methods course use sources from the May 4 digital archives to develop inquiry-based lesson plans.


“We hope to use the lesson plans as part of an online curriculum that can be used as a resource for K-12 teachers,” he says.


As coordinator of the Curriculum and Instruction Program in the School of Teaching, Learning and Curriculum Studies, Dr. Hawley introduces the May 4 archives to students who will become teachers in this progressive age.


“Teachers want to know how to access the archives and use them in their classrooms,” he says. “There is currently a push to move away from giving traditional content knowledge to students. Now that there is more access to technology in the classrooms, teachers are looking for resources that will enhance their lessons and engage their students.”


“As we approach the 50th anniversary in 2020, it’s even more important that these materials can be easily accessed by students, community members and researchers at various institutions,” Ms. Hughes-Watkins says. “The NHPRC allows people everywhere to access this important collection and understand how expansive it really is.”


Visit the Kent State Shootings: Actions and Reactions site at

POSTED: Wednesday, April 25, 2018 10:55 AM
UPDATED: Tuesday, July 16, 2024 03:32 PM
Cynthia Williams