Legacy of the September 11 Digital Archive as an Online Collecting Site

When the September 11 Digital Archive launched ten years ago, the web was mainly a read-only platform and most Americans were not regular users of the web or comfortable sharing personal materials online as they are today. According to the Pew Internet and American Life project, in 2000-01, 30 percent of Americans adults used the internet daily, whereas by 2011, 82 percent of adults used the web daily and nearly 50 percent upload and share photographs online.

Conceptualized in the same year as Wikipedia, the September 11 Digital Archive was at the forefront of what became known as Web 2.0, where web users were invited to be collaborators. The Archive invited the public to participate in the process of creating and preserving their own history. Though not the first collecting site of its kind, the Archive certainly became the largest as an outgrowth of the ECHO initiative (Exploring and Collecting History Online). ECHO enabled RRCHMN to experiment with different online collecting tools in an effort to help small organizations build sites to collect and present the recent history of science, technology, and industry.

The Archive’s early adoption of social media and collecting digitally allowed the project to capture thousands of first-hand accounts and born-digital materials from ordinary people at a time when other avenues for online sharing did not exist. Using a simple web form, the Archive was open to anyone with an internet connection, and in turn, those collected stories, photos, videos, art works, sounds, were available for anyone with web access to browse. To reach those without ready access to the Internet, we established partnerships with labor, ethnic, and community associations to create special collection outreach efforts. Drawing upon the instincts of oral history projects to seek out stories from witnesses, the Archive did so in much greater numbers and at much lower cost than would have been possible using traditional oral historical or archival methods.

The success of the September 11 Digital Archive as an online collecting site motivated others to build sites of their own. This response heavily influenced RRCHNM to develop a standalone digital collections and memory banking software, enabling anyone to quickly launch a digital memory bank to document or commemorate events deemed significant. That software would become Omeka.

One of the earliest projects built on the software that would become Omeka was the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, which launched soon after the devastating hurricane season of 2005 and collected over 25,000 digital items. The Hurricane project helped RRCHNM test the earliest versions of Omeka and aided in the development of the popular contribution plugin. Soon after the Omeka software was available in 2008, other collecting projects launched including Virginia Tech’s, April 16 Archive and the Catawba River Docs.

As we continue to migrate the 150,000 digital objects in the Archive to the more stable Omeka platform, we are reminded how significant this project was when it started. And, we are grateful that the National Park Service and National Endowment for the Humanities designated the September 11 Digital Archive as an American treasure worth saving.