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‘IU Birdman’ and other urban legends: Grad student digitizes Bloomington campus folklore

May 28, 2024

Elise Suarez in the IU Archives reading room at IU Bloomington on May 21, 2024. Photo by Chris Meyer, Indiana University Elise Suarez in the IU Archives reading room at IU Bloomington on May 21, 2024. Photo by Chris Meyer, Indiana University

According to Indiana University Bloomington legend, a male student who lived in McNutt Quadrangle in the mid-1960s became known for a bird-like call every evening that began slowly and rose to a hysterical, shrieking laugh. The so-called “IU Birdman” allegedly became so popular that students would fill the parking lots at McNutt and Foster quadrangles to hear the call.

That story persisted for years and even made its way into essays by folklore students.

Research into campus legends such as the “IU Birdman” typically has required hours of digging through boxes of student papers. But a graduate student’s class project to create a digital collection of these legends now makes it easier to find and read them.

Elise Suarez, a Master of Library Science student in the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering, collected and digitized 25 legends specific to IU Bloomington and created a website where the legends are accessible and easy to find through searches by subject, location, legend types and dates.

“For this project, I wanted to look at IU urban legends because I did a similar project as an undergraduate, about student urban legends in folklore,” Suarez said. “It was interesting to still see these legends in 2020 that dated back to the 1950s.”

Campus legends can offer insight into people’s fears and anxieties, Suarez added.

Elise Suarez had to search hundreds of student folklore papers to find what she needed for her project to digitize campus legends. Elise Suarez had to search hundreds of student folklore papers to find what she needed for her project to digitize campus legends. Photo by Chris Meyer, Indiana University

Her project was for Luddy associate professor John Walsh’s Digital Libraries course.

“This was a very intriguing one to me,” Walsh said. “I personally find the IU focus interesting, the campus legends. Some of my own research revolves around pop culture and comics, so I find ghost stories interesting and fascinating.”

Suarez, who earned bachelor’s degrees in folklore and ethnomusicology, history and English at IU Bloomington, knew of the campus legends from her coursework and involvement with the Folklore and Ethnomusicology Student Association, which hosts an annual ghost walk where campus legends are shared.

Suarez said she knew where to find the papers she sought, having worked with Indiana University Archivesvast and renowned collections for all of her undergraduate degrees. She was also motivated to create her digital collection by the temporary shutdown of in-person research at IU Archives during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Now more things have moved online, so if you are not able to get to campus personally, it’s great to have it in one place,” she said.

“I do think digitizing should be done more. The Irish National Folklore Collection in Dublin is digitizing its folklore content, for example. The trend is going that way.”

During the fall 2023 semester, Suarez said she spent 12 hours in IU Archives’ Reading Room, going through hundreds of student papers from 1958 to 1972 to find Bloomington campus legends. Carrie Schwier, IU Archives’ outreach and public services archivist, helped her obtain boxes of papers to search and clarified locations of campus buildings that no longer exist or have been renamed.

As part of her research, Suarez had to consider whether any prior consent met current standards, or whether names and other personal information would need to be redacted on the digitized version. She chose 25 essays from the Folklore Institute’s student papers collection, including “The Hatchet Man,” “The Teter Quad Ghost,” “The Pickled Arm” and “The Roommate’s Death.”

Suarez used a scanner in the Reading Room to create digital versions of the papers. She built the Indiana University Legends website where the papers now live using CollectionBuilder, an open-source framework created by IU alumni Devin Becker and Olivia Wikle — both professional librarians who took Walsh’s Digital Libraries course and earned Master of Library of Science degrees. Suarez said she designed the website to be helpful to researchers and the general population.

Walsh said he was impressed by Suarez’s project.

The home page of the IU legends website Indiana University Legends is a website created by Elise Suarez.

“Elise was a very good student in the course, and there were a lot of good projects,” Walsh said. “I’ve had a lot of good projects done on personal collections, but I encourage working with other departments and repositories on campus; Elise’s project is a good example.”

Schwier said she enjoyed working with Suarez and loved her project.

“In my job I partner with a lot of teaching faculty to get students to do this type of thing. I love seeing historical research of the archives used for university purposes and students creating new knowledge,” Schwier said. “This was an example of Elise bringing her knowledge of folklore to the existing collection and creating a map for it.”

Suarez would like a career involving archive work, possibly for a museum or university, and said the hands-on experience of the course project was great preparation for such work.

Although the campus legends project was originally for class, Suarez said she hopes it can have use beyond that. The website link is listed under the collections and archives section on the website for the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology in the College of Arts and Sciences, is part of her staff profile with the department and has been shared through the department’s social media channels. Schwier said Suarez’s website could be shared with researchers who are interested in urban legends, and could be included in the web archiving that University Archives does to preserve examples of websites.

Suarez’s project could be the start of a wider project to preserve the university’s entire folklore collection.

“I have a dream for this collection, ideally that it would all be digitized so that the data can be used for all sorts of digital humanities projects,” Schwier said. “This website is like a first step, like a concept proposal that could be done on a larger scale with the collection.”


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Kirk Johannesen

Communications Consultant, Strategic Communications

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