September 11 Digital Archive Gets Facelift

Posted: September 6, 2011 at 1:05 am, Last Updated: September 6, 2011 at 7:44 am

By Tara Laskowski

Image courtesy of September 11 Digital Archive

A 5-year-old child’s drawing of the American flag atop a tall building with the caption, “At the end of this day, the American flag still stands.” A woman in Paris, France, relaying the story of how she found out about the planes crashing in America. Thousands of images of flyers distributed and posted in Manhattan on the days after the attacks.

These pieces of history are some of the thousands of items that make up the September 11 Digital Archive, a social history of the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

The September 11 Digital Archive, created by Mason’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (CHNM) and the American Social History Project at the City University of New York Graduate Center, is the largest archive of user-generated content about Sept. 11, 2001. As the nation marks the 10th anniversary of the tragedy this month, CHNM has taken stock of the archive.

“Cutting edge at its launch nearly 10 years ago, the archive now is showing its age,” says Tom Scheinfeldt, managing director of CHNM, while explaining the recently received Saving America’s Treasures grant from the National Park Service. The grant will pay to transfer the digital collection to a stable, standardized, up-to-date archival system.

“This data transfer is an essential first step in guaranteeing that the world’s largest collection of user-created digital materials related to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, will be available to scholars, students, policymakers and the general public in the coming decades,” Scheinfeldt says.

Though the archive is currently closed for submissions (the creators are hoping to reopen it for the 10th anniversary or soon after), the site has more than 150,000 items and still gets millions of hits each year. Users can search for firsthand accounts, emails and other electronic communications, digital photographs, artwork and a range of other digital materials.

Ground zero memorials at St. Paul's Chapel (Broadway between Fulton and Vesey) across from the World Trade Center. Image courtesy of September 11 Digital Archive

So, who’s using the site and why? Scheinfeldt says it is a wide variety — students and teachers who wish to learn about the event, scholars researching the social history or churches and other organizations conducting memorial services. A large percentage of users are the general public who want to read and contribute to the site for their own personal reasons.

“There are plenty of sources to tell the political history of 9/11 — government documents, newspapers, magazines, etc. — but fewer sources for the personal response from the general public,” says Scheinfeldt. “Our archive collects the stories of a student in Illinois or a witness in Manhattan or a parent in Germany watching the events on television.”

Launched just after the 2001 attacks and before sites such as You Tube, Twitter and Facebook existed, the digital archive in many ways prefigured social media. “Now we have many spaces for people to upload personal content, reflections and memories,” says Scheinfeldt. “But these didn’t exist then.”

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu