September 11 Digital Archive

What is it?

The September 11 Digital Archive was launched in January 2002 with the intention of collecting, preserving, and making accessible the history of the 9/11 attacks through digital means. The Archive was originally created by the American Social History Project at the City University of New York Graduate Center and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Since 2002 the project team has taken steps to preserve the digital archive in a rapidly changing field. The first step, taken n 2003 was a partnership with the Library of Congress, which acquired the Archive as part of their collections. The second step, in 2011 was funded by a Saving America’s Treasures Grant and necessitated a migration to Omeka.

The Archive includes both “born-digital” material such as emails, audio recordings, digital images, first-hand stories recorded on the site, and digital representations such as scans of written visitor responses recorded at the National Museum of American History at their 10th anniversary temporary exhibition.

How do you use it?

There are five major was a visitor to the digital archive can access its materials.

1) Featured Collections

On the Home page, along with a scroll bar featuring 11 images from the collection, are three featured collections. These collections change when you refresh or return to the page, but the ones I saw were “Here is New York Photos,” “Voices of 9.11,” “Michael Ragsdale Flyer Collection,” and “FDNY Incident Action Plans Collection.” Clicking on these collections takes a visitor to a description of each collection, its origins, and its contents.

2) Items

The first option on the navigation bar at the top of the website is “Items.” Following this link allows you to browse the material collected through the archive. It is unclear how the material is organized when you land on the page, but you do have the option to sort by Title, Creator, or Date Added. Selecting an individual item takes you to the listing of that item. Depending on what it is (email, story, image, etc) a visitor can read the title, what collection the item is part of, how the person who uploaded the item learned about the archive, a citation, and view the item itself.

3) Collections

For a more structured browsing experience, visitors can also choose the “Collections” tab, which organizes the material on the website into categories such as “Art,” “Audio,” “Personal Accounts,” “First Responders,” “Video,” and “Photography.” Clicking on one of these categories leads you to a Collection Tree, which breaks the category down even further and allows you to browse the materials in each sub-category.

4) Research

The most structured search experience can be found by using the Search bar at the top of the website, or by clicking on the “Research” option on the home page. Selecting this option allows you to search by keywords, narrow by specific fields, search by collection, type, and tag, and categorize by ID range or if the item is part of a featured or non/featured category.

5) Contribute

The final way to interact with the archive is through contribution. The archive is built of individual and organizational contributions. Individuals can upload photos, videos, audio recordings and stories. In each category the contributor is asked not only to upload their item, but answer three questions: “How has your life changed because of what happened on September 11, 2001?” “How will you remember the September 11 attacks on the anniversary?” and “How did you hear about this website?” The answers to these questions are included in the item’s individual page. The contributor is also asked to include simple metadata for their item, such as a title and description of the photo, video, or audio file they are uploading. These descriptions and titles are important, but the uploading system does not require that they be filled out. This in turn complicates the browsing and searching experience: some material lacks a title, a description, or both, making it unclear what a visitor may find when they select the item to view it.

Example of item without title or description.

A lot of our class articles this week asked the reader to consider the differences digital and traditional archives and how the term “archive” is used to mean a variety of different things. In one article, the September 11 Digital Archive was described as a “collection of user generated born digital primary sources (Owens, Digital Sources and Digital Archives, 2015).”  These readings convinced me of the importance of definitions, but I wonder who would benefit from calling this collection the “September 11 Digital Collection of User-generated Primary Sources.”

2 Replies to “September 11 Digital Archive”

  1. I like your point about who would benefit from calling the collection the “September 11 Digital Collection of User-generated Primary Sources.” That was also something I was grappling with as I was reading these articles and writing my own post. I do think it is important to define terms (like archives) and for definitions to be specific, but for projects like these, I think they should be as accessible as possible and the term archive seems to be an incredibly accessible term. Perhaps if I was an archivist I’d see this differently, but as a public historian, the word that most inspires participation and engagement is the one I want to use.

    Perhaps this would be a worthwhile thing to survey audiences on? It might at least help the scholarly debate to understand how actual audiences respond to different word use.

    1. “Archive” has the benefit of being a term everyone knows and understands, at least at the basic level of “a place where lots of information is stored.”

      I think the one issue with calling a collection like this an archive is that when I think archive, my first thought is of a very documented and organized collection. I think that visitors to this site who are interested in the archive as a source of information might expect more in terms of organization and navigability (i.e. metadata that is included on all items to allow for the best possible returns from searches) than what you’re showing to be the case.

      I wonder if there’s some way to modify the name to keep the recognition of archive but signal that it may not be as comprehensively organized as, say, the Library of Congress website.

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