9/11 Digital Archive and the Bracero History Archive: A Review

The September 11 Digital Archive and the Bracero History Archive are two collaborative digital history archives projects that work to record and preserve the experiences of two important chapters in American history. These sites collect and archive oral histories, interviews, images and other documents related to the events of September 11, 2001 and the Bracero program, a “guest worker initiative that spanned the years 1942-1964.” Both of these sites are extremely informative and interactive, and allow easy exploration of a mass of materials, representing exciting examples of how digital archives can be done well. As I reviewed them both, however, I also noticed some other major similarities and differences in how collections are organized, how these archives are representing historical events (and what their historical timing means for both the archive and the user), and how each site is using this digital archival material to foster education and provide additional resources regarding these historical moments.

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What struck me most about both the September 11 Digital Archive and the Bracero Archive was the wide breadth of resources available on each site.   The Bracero Archive contains over 3,000 oral histories, images, documents, and contributed items, and the September 11 Archive holds more than 150,000 items, including more than 40,000 emails and electronic communications, over 40,000 first–hand stories, and more than 15,000 digital images. As Jamie discussed in her post, one of the most exciting possibilities of digital collections is the potential to take everything—to not be bogged down by the difficult appraisal decisions of what to keep, what matters most, and what can be tossed. These two digital sites certainly succeed in creating richer stories by using new tools and contexts to make fonds an argued thing of the past and instead providing access to as much archival material as possible.

It was also very clear while exploring these archives that in order to successfully undertake a large-scale digital initiative such as these, collaboration is key. Neither site is the sole creation of one organization, rather they are both co-created projects funded and supported by a variety of grants and sponsors. The Bracero Archive is a collaborative project of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for the History and New Media (RRCHNM) at George Mason University, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Brown University, nad the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas at El Paso, with funding provided by the NEH. Similarly, the September 11 Digital Archive is a product of the RRCHNM and the American Social History Project at the City University of New York, along with a permanent partnership with the Library of Congress. These partnerships not only allow for necessary resource funding, but also help ensure the long-term preservation of these archives and promote awareness of the importance of such projects.

While both sites contain similar layouts and information—including tabs on the background of the projects and staff, collections, and instructions on how users can add their own stories, etc.—they also differ in some ways on format, context, and content. For instance, both sites allow users to view all collection items at once, or sort them by topic, but I found the September 11 Archive to be less easy to navigate. Some of the items were not labeled (only having “??” as their titles), and some items, such as email communications, are presented in unfamiliar formats and often do not contain all the identifying metadata, such as sender, recipient, etc. Both sites do not always include full metadata for every item, and dates, creators, and descriptions of photographs, correspondence, and interviews are sometimes missing. I recognize that sometimes this information is not known, and therefore cannot be included, but what can these content and contextual changes mean for research? How does the digital archive affect the dissemination of this kind of information? Additionally, how does the born-digital aspect of these items affect this? While the Bracero Archive contains digital oral histories, and obviously other digital information, these items are not always born-digital and they are most often memories and experiences recorded and shared years after the program ended. In the September 11 Archive, no emails and other material is obviously born-digital, and often created within weeks, or even moments, of the actual event. How does this affect how content is presented and organized in the digital archive?

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Another feature that differs between these two archives is the way in which historical background information and additional resources are presented. The Bracero Archive contains extensive information on the background of the Bracero program, including a history summary and a large bibliography of selected related scholarship. It also features resources, including video tutorials on how to navigate the site, and three lesson plans outlining how educators can use the collection to teach students about America immigration and labor history. The September 11 Archive, on the other hand, does not contain bibliographies, educator resources, or a historical background narrative, but rather includes a tab on “FAQ’s about 9/11” that contains a timeline of the attacks, the immediate response and consequences, rebuilding efforts, the 9-11 Commission Report, and information on memorials. Both sites feature news related to the archive, but this tab on the 9/11 archive contains more up-to-date blog posts and information. These features show the additional resources that become possible—and more easily created and accessed—with digital archives. I was somewhat overwhelmed by how much information was available, and so easily navigated, on both of these sites. The possibilities for more resources like these seem endless, and extremely attractive, when imagining how to create and improve these kinds of digital public history pages. What do we think is the most useful? How should archivists and other creators of these sites best take advantage of the capabilities of digital archives to provide additional information?

2 Replies to “9/11 Digital Archive and the Bracero History Archive: A Review”

  1. Thinking about the 9/11 archive has raised a question for me, but is there such a thing as over-contextualization? (This is perhaps a distillation of what I was struggling with regarding my own resources.) What sparked the thought was the exacerbated idea that if you give people too much information they could learn the wrong thing – like how to build a bomb or hijack a plane – and this in itself raises questions about censorship and intellectual freedom, but it reminds me of some of the Alternate Reality Games we looked at in Digital Humanities early this semester. one of the things that Prof. Kraus discussed was how certain ARGs intentionally over-use semiotic cues to obscure the keys to the game so that you “can’t tell the signal from the noise.” When there is so much data that some of it is barely curated (the the emails labeled “???” (and giving fair dues to the Rossetti archive that has really solid metadata for everything)) how do we ensure that we’re providing a quality product to the user? At what point does it become more valuable to use appraisal to hold back parts of a collection until they can be made public in the most valuable way (again, fair dues to Rossetti for going in manageable chunks)?

    1. I agree—I think this gets into the quality vs. quantity argument that’s so prevalent in archival processing right now. I think you bring up a great point that quantity is great, and for sure the amount of material available on the 9/11 Archive is amazing and useful, but in the push to get out as much of this info as possible, there seem to be many gaps. For me, having misrepresented, or even missing metadata raises citation issues as well. Do we not have a responsibility to ensure that information is able to be cited correctly? Yet, with something like the 9/11 Archive, a major goal is to provide a space where people can share and honor their experiences of that event, so would holding back collections before they can be processed, etc. more be helpful or hurtful to that goal? I’m very torn on this…..do others have thoughts?

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