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September 11 Digital Archive

History of the Project

Barely three weeks after the tragic events of September 11, a small group of public historians, archivists, and librarians gathered on October 4, 2001 at the City Museum of New York. As rescue workers still sorted through the rubble and missing person posters covered Manhattan, making of the city a momentary, haunting memorial, the question of preserving the history of September 11 might not have seen the most pressing of questions with which to grapple. The tragedy was still immediate, the city still vulnerable and raw. These historians, however, witnessed how the distinctly digital response to the tragedy and its aftermath provoked a new kind of history; this transforming materiality of history – one that could be deleted with one careless keystroke – made the task of preservation feel incredibly urgent.

This group of forward-thinking historians envisioned a September 11 digital archive that would gather, cohere, and preserve these disparate digital voices. Though there did not yet exist a framework for creating a digital archive at this scale, they recognized that these digital ephemera were more than rubble: they were our citizen narration, our collective history.

One month after this historic meeting, the Alfred. P. Sloan Foundation invited George Mason’s Center for History and New Media (CHNM) and the City University of New York’s Social History Project (SHP) to their offices in mid-town Manhattan. With a history of funding digital preservation projects, the Foundation brought together these two known innovators in digital history and storytelling to brainstorm what a digital archive around September 11 could look like, what it would help accomplish, and perhaps most importantly, how it could come to be. They asked CHNM and SHP a thought-provoking question to help them envision the exigence of the project: What would historians fifty years from now want to know about the attacks?

This question proved influential. “We realized that we could not remain passive because we could not assume that the kind of diverse information and materials that future researchers needed would still be available in the future,” Archive Co-Founders Stephen Brier and Joshua Brown wrote in an editorial for Duke University’s Radical History Review. “even though September 11 was one of the most well-documented events (in every sense of the term) in human history.”

Thus, George Mason’s CHNM and the City University of New York’s SHP became the co-founders of the September 11 archive, with funding and support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Curating the Digital Archive

The initial version of the Digital Archive launched shortly after on January 11, 2001. From the inception of the Archive, the Co-Founders sought to find and highlight perspectives on September 11 that were getting lost in the highly-mediated mainstream coverage of the attacks and their immediate aftermath. While there was a strong initial response to the Archive, its first real bump in web traffic occurred, unsurprisingly, on the one-year anniversary of the attacks. 100,000 visitors accessed the site on September 11, 2002, with 13,000 personal stories submitted to the Archive in the days to follow.

Interestingly, unequal access to the internet in these early days of the Web skewed the first wave of submissions. The Archive’s first submissions were mostly from white and upper-class New Yorkers. While the team saw these voices as both valuable and essential to the task of collective narration, they in no way reflected the breadth of voices they aspired to host on the Archive. In 2003 the Archive team began an intensive period of outreach to create a more inclusive digital history. Focused partnerships helped them achieve this goal. The Digital Archive became the Smithsonian Institution’s “designated repository” for digital materials related to September 11. A partnership with the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, “Bearing Witness” exhibit in which visitors could record messages recounting their personal stories also contributed several thousands of stories to the Archive. Lastly, partnerships with the Sonic Memorial Project, a collection of audio stories from the World Trade Center collected and curated by the creators of NPR’s “Lost&Found Sound” program and the Here is New York: A Democracy of Photographs digital image collection provided an additional 100,000 distinct digital materials to the Archive’s breadth of witness. The team also launched a Spanish version of the Digital Archive in 2003 as a critical piece of this intensive period of outreach.

Just two years after its launch, the Archive had collected 150,000 digital items including 45,000 personal narratives, 60,000 emails, 14,000 digital images, 6,000 print documents, and 4,500 audio and video files. It also collected “Missing Person” flyers from around Manhattan. While not intrinsically digital, the team viewed these materials as essential to the public history of September 11.

Due to the grassroots nature of the Archive’s storytelling, the Archive is seen by historians as presenting a true and visceral moment of what it was like to be in New York, and more broadly America at large, in the immediate days following the September 11 attacks.

The Digital Archive and Web 2.0

Piecing together a grassroots, digital narrative of September 11 and its impact helped to usher in a new era of digital habits and storytelling. Conceptualized in the same year as Wikipedia, this project of digital archiving the response to September 11 emerged alongside what came to be called, “web 2.0:” a notion of the internet not just as a place for hosting and obtaining information, but for sharing information in a way that fosters communication. In this light, the immediate goal of the archive was to create a free and accessible public place for people to contribute their stories. However, according to the PEW Research Center, only 30% of American adults at this time used the internet daily. By 2011 at the ten-year anniversary of the attacks, 80% of American adults used the internet daily. It’s essential when approaching the work and vision of this Archive to understand that its grassroots inception of digital history was truly the first of its kind.

Finding a Home and Creating a Legacy

With the end of funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the project Co-Founders completed the Archive’s phase of actively collecting stories and materials by the end of 2003. In 2003, the Library of Congress began to take over the Digital Archive, with the ambition of fully hosting the site by 2013. The day-long symposium, “Collecting Today for Tomorrow” at the Library of Congress on September 10, 2003 launched the transfer of the Digital Archive to the Library of Congress.

The Digital Archive continues to collect accounts but no longer updates the website.

Works Cited

Brier, S, and J. Brown. “The September 11 Digital Archive: Saving the Histories of September 11, 2001.” Radical History Review. (2011): 101-109. Web.

Harmon, Amy. “Real Solace in a Virtual World: Memorials Take Root on the Web.” The New York Times 11 Sept. 2002: Web.

The September 11 Digital Archive. Center for History and New Media and the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2002. Web. 4 May 2014.