A collaboration between the American Social History Project at the City University of New York Graduate Center and Rosenzweig’s Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the September 11 Digital Archive represents a significant turning point in the realm of the online archive. While previous digital humanities efforts had focused on digitizing (essentially duplicating) materials from existing physical archives with the goal of promoting broader access, the events of September 11, 2001 occurred at moment in time when born-digital materials were increasingly the primary mode of cultural production. With relevant artifacts simultaneously easier to collect and more ephemeral, this required a different approach to online archiving. As such, the September 11 Digital Archive represents a number of interesting steps forward in the conceptualization of the online archive generally. The following are some of the characteristics and issues that struck me when exploring the site
1. What Just Happened?
The September 11 Digital Archive set a new standard for immediacy in archival practice. With the plethora of born-digital content and the speedy launch of a simple user interface, materials and personal testimonials were being collected in temporal proximity to actual events that was previously unimaginable. While the campaign to record the experiences of Holocaust survivors often captured these recollections in excess of fifty years after the fact, this archive features emails sent as early as days or weeks after the attacks. In my estimation, this has the potential to capture a different kind of cultural memory than recollections shaded by the passing of time and subsequent events.
2. Abundance: Drowning in Primary Resources
As discussed by Rosenzweig, digital archives often engender heated debates between archivists and historians over what to save and how much. In the case of the September 11 Digital Archive, it is obvious that the creators erred on the side of abundance with over 150,000 born-digital artifacts collected in the form of photos, video, audio, and personal recollections and correspondence.
3. The Archive is Dead.
The September 11 Digital Archive introduces some interesting questions for digital archivists about whether or when archiving should end. According to the website, the project responsible for creating this resource ended as of June 2004. While user submissions are still possible, they state that the website is no longer being updated. How do we decide that a digital archiving project is over? Is it a practical decision related to funding windows? Is it a scholarly decision that the period for producing valuable contributions to an online archive has closed? Can we ever consider the archive closed if materials can still be submitted? What happens when an inactive digital archive becomes outdated in terms of format or user interface? Does it affect the power of the resource if no one is adapting the vast quantities of materials collected to new types of search algorithms or other user interfaces that would enhance interaction with those collections?
4. Collaboration is king.
Beyond the original partnership between the primary civic institutions of higher education and their private funding source, the September 11 Digital Archive illustrates the essential role collaboration can have in determining the success of digital archiving initiatives. While the original project is technically over, the material was added to the permanent collection of the Library of Congress in September 2003. The archive’s website lauds this partnership as a means of ensuring the “long-term preservation” of the collection and a public acknowledgement of the importance of born-digital content by the Library of Congress. Of course, as we’ve been reading this semester, there is still some uncertainty about the true meaning of “long-term preservation” in regard to digital materials.
The September 11 Digital Archive also forged other collaborative relationships that enriched the resource. Under Special Collections, the site describes a collaboration with NPR that produced The Sonic Memorial Project, an aggregation of sounds related to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center specifically. There is also discussion of how the September 11 Digital Archive served as the “Smithsonian Institution’s designated repository for digital materials related to 9/11,” linking yet another legacy cultural institution with this project. This kind of centralization of materials into a single resource seems like an excellent model for future digital archiving projects and a useful means of overcoming the fragmentation of information across disparate sites that seems so typical of the Internet.
5. Resources NOT Narratives.
It is also interesting how clearly the September 11 Digital Archives delineates itself as a collection of resources rather than a curated narrative of events like one would expect to find in a museum or a history textbook. In its FAQs section, it directs visitors with specific questions about the timeline of events, the origins and identities of the terrorists, the activity of first responders, and the rebuilding of the site of the World Trade Center to resources created by other sources, particularly the websites of the New York Times, CNN, and the Washington Post.
6. Content Does Not Always Equal Context.
The final point that I want to make about the September 11 Digital Archive is that there are still a lot of unanswered questions about how best to standardize vast quantities of born-digital materials for ease of search and uniformity of display for the web while still retaining important contextual information. Using the example of the “Satan in the Smoke” collection of emails, you can see how the visual layout of the document below is unfamiliar to anything we associate with reading emails, whether you use a web interface, a desktop client, or a mobile device.
Furthermore, embedded content has been pulled out and placed elsewhere on the archive site and all identifying information regarding the sender and recipient(s) have been removed. I’m not making an argument about any of these practices being right or wrong, just attempting to draw attention to the importance of context when dealing with born-digital archives, just as with any other category of artifacts, and the unique problems that the ability to strip and reconfigure digital text and data can raise.
This is just a sampling of the issues that exploring the September 11 Digital Archive triggered for me. If you noticed anything that I did not touch on, please feel free to contribute to the discussion in the comments below.