Hall County librarians didn't realize the significance of the VHS tape they held in their hands.
They stored footage of the aftermath of the 1936 tornado for years; in 2007 they sent a digital copy to the University of Georgia for preservation. Once UGA librarians saw it and noticed the tornado was the fifth deadliest in the nation's history, they decided to pick apart the footage.
"Local historian Steve Gurr knew someone who had the original film, and we went back to see what we could identify in Gainesville with Sanborn fire insurance maps and photos," said Adrian Mixson, director of the Hall County Library System. "Then we could search out the story of individual structures and piece it together with snippets of the video as the photographer drives through town. It really tells the story in a unique way."
Librarians took months to identify sections of Gainesville's downtown in the scrambled footage.
"The film came very early in filmmaking and in itself is very unusual because it's 30 minutes long but not edited or narrated and has no structure," said Ed Johnson, project director for Georgia HomePLACE, which helps public libraries participate in the Digital Library of Georgia. The group creates digital copies of the state's newspapers and historic items, such as Sanborn fire insurance maps used in the 1930s.
"The film photographer recorded the damage in a series of clips that are just a few seconds long each, which is a particularly challenging thing to know how to present in a usable way," he said.
Hall County Library System and Digital Library of Georgia workers then decided to create a website that features the video, photographs and an interactive map.
Hall County librarian Ronda Sanders located the film photographer's wife in Texas and got permission to publish the video.
"It's a wonderful piece of serendipity," she said. "Over the years people get really interested in the project, and at one point the History Channel was very involved."
Sanders, who interned with UGA's Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, worked with digital library officials to roll out the video and website in a year.
"You never know what you're going to turn over," she said. "A front page of the newspaper at that time talked about a lady who was born during the 1903 tornado and was killed in the 1936 tornado. You just never know what you're going to find."
The website, "The 1936 Gainesville Tornado: Disaster and Recovery" features an interactive map of the downtown area with photo and video at more than 25 locations, and another section features an online exhibit that explains the chronology of April 6, 1936, through text, photos and video.
Along the right side of the screen, Johnson included quotes from survivors about the destruction and rebuilding.
"It's a very powerful way of interfacing with the information, and there are several ways to get at it," he said. "When readers put the pieces together, it helps them to put themselves back into that time and history and understand the drama of the event."
Johnson and others put the finishing touches on the site in 2008, including scenes of the recovery and President Franklin Roosevelt traveling to town.
"I think about what it must have been like to see this terrible thing happening and not be able to do anything as fires burned structures and buildings collapsed," he said. "Can you imagine what it would have been like to experience that?"