The print project that I am proposing for this course stems from my interest in the role of digital media in the evolution of cultural memory. The central question driving my attention to this area of study lies in discerning whether or not technology is having a significant impact on public discussion and collective understanding surrounding the remembrance of historical events. By exploring more recent history, in particular the destruction and loss of lives in three American cities on September 11, 2001, it becomes possible to explore how the expanding digital humanities movement is changing our understanding of the archive. The proliferation of born-digital content leading up to this national tragedy has resulted in numerous online archives dedicated specifically to this event, as well as the availability of materials in special collections as part of larger projects. These archives espouse vastly different purposes, aggregate varying types of content, and originate from a variety of civic, federal, commercial, and individual sources.
In surveying the websites yielded by appropriate keyword searches, I hope to create a clearer picture of how the archive is being enacted online. For each site, I will attempt to provide a concise summary of what the stated goals for the project are, who funds and maintains its offerings, how content is collected, whether content is limited to a specific subset or leans toward universal collection of relevant artifacts, how content is organized and presented, whether user-generated content is allowed or encouraged, what types of policies are in place regarding access and responsibilities for long-term upkeep of the collections, and whether the site appears to curate their materials with or without bias. It will also be useful to explore whether or not these online archives appear to have implied audience, either professional or amateur, and whether the low cost of online broadcast opens up the mnemonic discussion to minority voices such as conspiracy theorists and 9/11 deniers.
I am further interested in seeing what role the traditional physical objects associated with historical practice have found in online archives. Not having yet delved into the research, I would assume that these sites are dominated by born-digital content that is easy to upload and manage while tangible objects languish under the same time and resource constraints limiting how quickly they can be documented and processed for viewing online that are currently affecting the digitalization of historically offline archives of pre-digital artifacts. Where relevant in the case of websites that simultaneously offer physical access to collections, as is the case with the National Archives, I will discuss this divide between offline and online at additional length by looking at differences in policies for access of materials and how much of the total content is available online.
Finally, the diversity of online archives presenting content relevant to this particular historical event includes some that allow user comments and/or reviews of specific content, as well as usage or download statistics. Whenever possible, this information will be included and discussed in hopes of sketching out how the content is being used and how those users or site visitors identify themselves in relation to the material.
This paper will work in concert with another paper that I am preparing this semester that will look specifically at policy issues surrounding user-generated content in the online archive. Hopefully, these attempts to create a tentative framework of how online archives currently function will underwrite future research into what effect broader access to these primary materials has on the shape of the public discourse of cultural memory.