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.

The Collections Within

How did we collect these 150,000 digital stories, emails, documents, images, audio and video recordings, and digital animations that comprise the September 11 Digital Archive?

Many items were contributed directly through the Archive’s contribution form from individuals interested in sharing their experiences. We also collaborated with scores of organizations to save and publish materials they collected.

Soon after the Archive launched, the team collaborated with major cultural institutions, including the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, American Association of Museums, Museum of the City of New York, Brooklyn Historical Society, The New-York Historical Society, Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center at CUNY, and Museum of Chinese in America.

We also contacted nationally-important institutions including the American Red Cross, Service Employees International Union, Fire Department of New York, New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, U.S. Department of Justice, and National Guard and accessioned collections from their archive. All collections are available for browsing.

While collecting materials from large organizations was very important, we also reached out to smaller ones, including the SEPT11INFO discussion group, TomPaine.com, the Independent Press Association, the Madison Area Peace Coalition, Global Kids, New York City P.S. 721, and Asociación Tepeyac de New York.

Additionally, the Archive is responsible for three important collections of digital materials. The first and largest of these is Here Is New York (HNY). In response to the World Trade Center tragedy, and to the unprecedented flood of images that resulted from it, a unique exhibition of photographs was displayed in a storefront in Manhattan’s SoHo.

Subtitled “A Democracy of Photographs,” the collection contains nearly 7,000 high-quality images. Anyone who had taken pictures relating to the attacks was invited to submit images to the gallery, where they were digitally scanned, printed and displayed on the walls alongside the work of top photojournalists and other professional photographers. Following its run in SoHo, the exhibition traveled to twenty locations around the world.

Smaller in scale, but no less unique, the Sonic Memorial Project is a collection of digital audio related to the history and collapse of the World Trade Center towers. Shortly after September 11th, National Public Radio’s Lost and Found Sound series brought together radio producers, artists, historians, archivists, and the public broadcasting community to collect and preserve audio traces of the World Trade Center, its neighborhood, and the events of September 11th. The Sonic Memorial Project launched a toll-free telephone line and asked the general public to record stories and make audio contributions. The result is a collection of nearly 800 first-hand audio recollections and historical audio recordings, among them recordings of weddings atop the World Trade Center, sounds of the Hudson River waterfront, recordings of law offices and cleaning crews at work in the buildings, an interview with the pianist at Windows on the World, and voicemail messages from people who worked in the World Trade Center, including several recorded during the attacks.

Finally, Ground One: Voices from Post-911 Chinatown provides an in-depth portrait of the ways in which the identity of a community, largely neglected by national media following September 11th, has been indelibly shaped by that day. Made possibly through a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Archive team partnered with the Museum of Chinese in America, the Columbia University Oral History Research Office, and New York University’s Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program and Institute to conduct 30 interviews with Chinese and Chinese-American citizens of New York’s Chinatown, a community in the shadow of the WTC towers.

We will be merging all of these special collections, some currently saved in different databases, into one unified archive. For now, browse the collections individually to discover some remarkable sights and sounds captured in 2001.

Moving the September 11 Digital Archive to Omeka

It’s hard for me to comprehend that the September 11 Digital Archive has been in operation for over nine years. I was brought on near the beginning of the project, charged by the Center for History and New Media to make sense of the growing amount of contributed material. As demand to preserve reactions to the attacks increased beyond our initial capacity, we began to accept CD-ROMs and Zip drives filled with heterogeneous collections. In addition, as our reputation grew, other 9/11-related projects donated their digital content, often in the form of fully functional websites.

Quickly we realized that our original database was insufficient to the task, so we designed one better suited to store a multitude of files and complex directory trees. Over the years, this database and accompanying website (designed primarily for researchers) have done their job satisfactorily. We donated a copy of the Archive to the Library of Congress, and, as contributions waned, the Center focused on building other websites and digital tools.

The Center’s work on the Archive and other collections websites greatly inspired the development of Omeka, an open source, standards-based web publishing platform designed especially for cultural heritage institutions. Our mission was to provide a generalized CMS that would benefit a wide variety of collections projects, to facilitate the ingestion, description, organization, and presentation of digital content. It’s fitting, then, that we’ve chosen Omeka as the next home of the September 11 Digital Archive.

By far our biggest job is moving a massive amount of content to Omeka. The Archive contains hundreds of collections and well over 100,000 digital objects. Each collection has particular characteristics and many have unique requirements for import. To avoid laborious and redundant work, I’m working on a framework that systematizes the import process. With this framework in place, all I need to do is evaluate the Archive’s holdings, write an import strategy for every collection or class of collections, and run a script. If something goes wrong during import, the script picks up where it last left off.

Data loss during import is unacceptable. Thankfully, mapping the Archive’s data model to Omeka is proving to be straightforward, given Omeka’s database pedigree and overall extensibility. When the need arises, I simply create element sets, item types, and plugins to accommodate data structures and behavior that are not native to Omeka. This is a testament to the success of Omeka as a generalized CMS, able to adapt to virtually any circumstance.

It continues to be a mixed blessing working on the September 11 Digital Archive. The work offers exceptional methodological and technological use cases for working with digital archives, but the material is a constant reminder of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the response to them. We’re certain that the move to Omeka will enrich the historical record by making such noteworthy material even more usable by scholars and accessible to the general public.

State of the Archive on the Eve of the 10th Anniversary

Many of us still find it difficult to believe that ten years have passed since the September 11 attacks. Every person who lost a loved one or who lived through the aftermath of the events experienced something unique. It was in the wake of 9/11, we at CHNM together with our friends at the American Social History Project (ASHP) at the City University of New York Graduate Center built the September 11 Digital Archive to preserve some of those responses to the traumatic events in the months and years that followed.

When we launched the Archive in 2002, we could not have imagined how it would grow to become the world’s largest public collection of born-digital materials related to the events of September 11, 2001. At 150,000 items, the Archive is a uniquely rich collection of the feelings, hopes, and fears of Americans and people around the globe as they attempted to process the world-changing events of that late summer morning. Collected materials range from recordings of Manhattan residents’ voice mails on that morning, to drawings of the attacks by children in Los Angeles, to photos of impromptu memorials from around the world.

We also published digital collections shared with the Archive by large organizations such as the Red Cross, the National Guard, the New York Fire Department, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Library of Congress and smaller groups serving flight attendants, the Chinese community of lower Manhattan, and Arab-American groups.

The September 11 Digital Archive is significant not only because of its contents and use, but also because of the way it was produced. At the time it launched, the Archive was a unique example of how the Internet could be used to collect history from ordinary people, and it has served as a model for countless other digital archives projects. In 2001 most individuals were not regular users of the Web, nor were they as comfortable sharing personal materials online as they are today.

As we approach the 10th anniversary, we will direct our efforts towards preservation. A Saving America’s Treasures (SAT) grant, jointly-administered by the National Park Service and National Endowment for the Humanities, will help pay for our preservation efforts as we transfer the aging collection to the Omeka platform, a more stable and standardized archival system. This is an essential step to making the contents of the Archive more accessible to scholars, students, policy makers, and the general public in the coming years.

We will use this blog to update you on our progress and detail some of the work required to transfer a large digital collection using one data model to another system with a different one. We also plan to highlight some of the collections and items that have intrigued us as we sort through the Archive.

Finally, we are re-opening the collecting portal and want to hear how your life has changed since September 11, 2001. By collecting reflections at this commemorative moment, we hope to further the life of the Archive as one that not only includes the most immediate reactions to the attacks, but also shows change over time as individuals reflect at different points in the post-9/11 world.

When asked what did you do to commemorate the 10th anniversary of September 11th, we hope that includes submitting a quick reflection to the September 11 Digital Archive.