Born-Digital: The September 11 Digital Archive

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.

7 Replies to “Born-Digital: The September 11 Digital Archive”

  1. One of my first impressions of this website was “Wow, people can upload their own stories to be shared and stored within this digital archive, cool!” But, alas, the archive is dead.

    It seems unfortunate this archive is no longer active, considering 9/11 occured just over a decade ago. User submissions are still accepted, yet the website is no longer being updated. Jamie, the questions you raise are interesting ones: How do we decide that a digital archiving project is over? Can we ever consider the archive closed if materials can still be submitted? Any digital archive that is using digital-born material should, in my opinion, continue to be updated on a regular basis. But then the question arises, if the creators of this archive do not have the means to keep the website operating, when/should they take it down? Even inactive digital archives still have a lot to offer in terms of historical resources.

    I guess I do not have the answer. The website should at least take down the user submission portion – this just seems like a waste. Though it may still be collecting resources from different user submissions and ever-expanding its archive (perhaps for its own purposes), what’s the point if the public cannot access those new submissions? Isn’t that the reason for having a digital archive – public accessibility? In any case, I believe there is still merit in keeping the website up and running, even if it is in limbo.

  2. It is terribly sad that this website is not being updated on a regular basis, especially given this year’s significance. I do, however, as you both say, see the positives in keeping a website like this open/accessible.

    One of the larger questions that this website needs to address, as we covered a week or two ago with creating profiles of the audience, is who exactly is the audience and for what purpose is this site supposed to be used for?

    Also I feel as though some more general planning/logistics is needed to make visiting the site more useable for lack of a better word. You can search under user stories, but there’s no way (from what I’ve seen) to really group or subgroup stories. They might think of making it more accessible and viable for historians by creating subheadings of region, gender, age, etc. (I’m just thinking in regards to the stories being oral histories and useable by historians in the future). Another interesting part could be/would have been, to allow users to submit stories/updates on their original post, somewhat like blogging, throughout the past 10 years to analyze how rhetoric, feelings, etc have changed.

    I think you bring in a great point that this is a more tricky situation as these are events we’re living with daily, not something experienced 30, 40 years ago. The sheer number of people who were both involved and able to witness first hand opens up widely what we would consider “eyewitnesses”…. how do we as historians grapple with having such an expanded number of actors? And will the decision of the Digital Archive to not update its website impact the sources used in the future to write this part of history? Theoretically, with the archive “closing” in 2004, the demographics of who left these stories are not entirely representative of a general public (children most likely did not leave stories, etc) but does the archive give the impression that these stories by and large are representative? I’m not entirely sure. And I’m not entirely sure not having a way to differentiate region/location in 2001 helps either.

    1. Katie,

      I agree that subheadings or even tags would help sort out the content of the site more and help researchers narrow down their search. There are so many different forms the stories are present in that it would be nice to see, for example, all of the stories of contributors under the age of 20, on one page. Would they be able to do this now in hindsight, though? It’d be a great addition to the site, but I don’t know if it’s feasible.

      Also, when just skimming through the site, I found on the “Phone Messages” page the recording of a woman calling because she saw the number on a billboard for some estate. Did anyone else come across something like this? Is it a common occurrence? I just found it odd for a site that monitors the content it puts up. (Also that I was expecting to hear something about 9/11 and instead got “Waterford Estates” and a woman’s phone number. Or is there a connection I’m not making?)

  3. I, too, am discouraged that the September 11 Digital Archive is dead. You make an excellent point, Jamie, that this interactive archive is a groundbreaking way to collect and preserve memory. Historians, today, search endlessly for people’s reactions and feelings towards events and how they feel these events affected them. It now seems this important contribution of recording memory of a very important event in our history is now in jeopardy. If the website is not updated and soon becomes obsolete, the site may not be able to accept new submissions. The archive will then be unable to record how memory on September 11 has changed and how people still feel the event has affected them.

    With that said, keeping the archive running for too long does err on the side of Rosenzweig’s abundance idea. When is the right time to stop an archive such as this? Unfortunately, more practical reasons most likely make this decision (such as money and length of partnerships), but shouldn’t historians take a role in this decision-making process? Historians should participate in this discussion and help decide what the boundaries of digital archiving should be. This archive is an incredible resource and should be saved. This state of limbo (as you put it colwillc), I think, puts the site in danger because if the site begins to decline, who will take responsibility?

  4. Jamie, your original post and the discussion furthered by the early commentators are both really good! I too agree that the fact that the Archive is no longer being updated is troubling. I agree with Meghan that historians need to be involved in the decision making about when an archival project can appropriately be closed. Though practical and funding concerns probably drove the decision to stop updating the website in 2004, it is a mistake to avoid the new meanings of September 11 that may have developed as history has moved on.

    Furthermore, as has been noted, there is an additional issue of usability. The format of the Archive is already looking antiquated, hindering its applicability. It would also just be a matter of good form for the home page to display a prominent message detailing the fact that this website itself is now a record of the past and not still fully functional.

    Finally, the content versus context question is a good one in this case of a publicly-accessible archive. This is an example that publicly displays the differences between historians, who craft meaning from primary sources, and archivists who try to avoid doing that as much as possible, so others can craft meaning without influence from others. For the public, who are used to guidance and direction on websites, does a digital archive just confuse the expectations of various formats.

  5. I think that 9/11 is a topic that can benefit from the style of a digital style archive. There are so many primary sources that can contribute to a more completed picture of the events of that day for future generations. However, it is not served by the completion or end of the archive. I agree with previous comments that we cannot really know “How do we decide when a digital archiving project is over?” If there is no one overseeing the contribution, it’s impossible to maintain the legitimacy of the database. I wonder if viewers would be better served by active archives absorb closed ones. This is a very thorough database, spanning personal experience, artistic collections, and factual resources. It could continue to contribute to historical activity if it was a part of an archive that is still growing.

    While a database on a subject such as this can never be complete, this digital source has stopped collecting, and stopped evolving in the digital age. It’s clearly seen in the interface of the site, which is dated and not as user-friendly as many digital archives are today. Since this project has been abandoned, it will not make the transition to whatever is next in the technological evolution of historical collection. New advances are hardly ever created with the compatibility of previous technology in mind. What’s the point of creating a database if it is not sustainable?

  6. I don’t mean to repeat what has already been said, but I too dislike the discontinuation of updates to the Archive. I grew up only an hour outside NYC and for me Sept. 11th was a terrifying day which took away some close friends. I was only in 4th grade at the time but I remember every moment of that day vividly. Despite the many discussions that have arisen in my presence over the years, I’ve been unable to discuss the impact of that day on my life and the world around me until very recently. I feel that by not updating the Archive the world is missing out on the stories and experiences of people who have found it difficult to talk about or who have been unable to talk about that time. In addition, there exist many people who were children on Sept. 11th, 2001 but who are now young adults and the Archive is not presenting their valuable experiences since that day.

    In my personal opinion, archives that contain “born-digital materials,” as Jaime said, should be updated continually for many years to come (let’s pretend for a moment that money is not an issue and a lack of funds does not force the closure of an archive). If we can take a picture and have it up on the internet and circulated to multiple nations in a matter of minutes, why should a predominantly digital based archive be limited? History is being made every minute and we have the ability to capture those minutes for future generations–why stop it?

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