Collecting History Online

Case Study: September 11, 2001

he most immediate, successful, and helpful examples of online collecting thus far indeed arose in response to those terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The date was a watershed moment in the short history of online collecting, a point at which the practice spread in a spontaneous response to historic events among amateur historians, as well as more deliberate responses from professional historians, museums, libraries, and historical societies. We participated in one of these projects, the September 11 Digital Archive and as part of our project we cataloged hundreds of other sites that were accepting contributions in the form of stories, reflections, artwork, and photographs. To be sure, much of this activity took place in preexisting online locations, such as major media websites. For instance, the web portals of the New York Times and the BBC had extensive and quite active message boards recording responses to the events of that day and its aftermath. At the same time, however, many new outlets popped up to collect these feelings and perspectives in a vibrant example of what the Pew Internet and American Life Project has called “do-it-yourself journalism.”31 Starting with the clear conviction that momentous events were occurring around them, scholars, students, archivists, businesses, and members of the general public started online collecting projects in an effort to record the terrible events of September 11 and its aftermath.

Amateur collectors founded many of the earliest successful efforts to capture the history of September 11 online. succeeded in collecting more than two thousand personal narratives of September 11 in the space of just a few weeks.32 Working quickly and with admirable technical and design skill, the creators of the site developed a database-driven application that allowed people from around the globe to tell their story of September 11. Remarkably, the entire project was unfunded, and conceived and executed entirely by three undergraduate college students working in different cities in their spare time. shows how the Internet can empower amateur historians who want to collect history.

In addition to scores of such amateur efforts, several large-scale professional and institutional efforts used the web to capture historical materials and narratives. Building on a partnership with the Internet Archive forged to collect web content during the preelection months and in the aftermath of the contested 2000 presidential contest, the Library of Congress’s Library Services Directorate moved immediately to capture web content related to the attacks. Their September 11 Web Archive officially launched on October 11, 2001, though the Internet Archive’s computers began scanning the web just hours after the September 11 attacks. Led by the Library and funded with a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, this effort, like the project surrounding the 2000 presidential election before it, sought to “evaluate, select, collect, catalog, provide access to, and preserve digital materials for future generations of researchers.” By the time the collecting wrapped up on December 1, 2001, the Library and the Internet Archive had collected the contents of nearly 30,000 websites and 5 terabytes (5,000 gigabytes) of information, representing an unprecedented snapshot of the world’s real-time response to the tragic events.33

A second major online effort to document the history of 9/11 was our September 11 Digital Archive, a joint venture of the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and CHNM.34 Funded with a grant from the Sloan Foundation, the archive set out to collect, preserve, and present a range of primary sources, especially those born-digital materials that were not being collected by other projects like the September 11 Web Archive. Whereas the Web Archive aimed at collecting public web pages, our effort sought to collect–directly from their owners–those digital materials not available on the public Web: artifacts like email, digital photographs, word processing documents, and personal narratives. We also wanted to create a central place of deposit for the many and more fragile amateur efforts already under way. Now, more than three years into the project, the September 11 Digital Archive has collected more than 150,000 digital objects relating to the terrorist attacks, including more than 35,000 personal narratives and 20,000 digital images. In September 2003, the Library of Congress formally agreed to ensure the Digital Archive’s long-term preservation.

Despite its large scale, the Digital Archive began fairly modestly. To get the site up extremely quickly, we ported over the basic database infrastructure and programming code from several earlier collecting projects on the history of science and technology (our Echo project). Funding from the Sloan Foundation arrived on January 1, 2002, and we launched the site on January 11, with the initial ability to collect digital images, email, and stories. As time went on, we added features as needed, including uploads for digital files other than images and fully automated voicemail contributions. To seed the contributions area, we first publicized the site to friends, family, colleagues, and the students and staff of our respective campuses. On the six-month anniversary of September 11, on March 11, 2002, we had a full public launch, with press releases and some major media coverage.

With the technical concerns in the background, we focused heavily on outreach to both a wide audience and the communities near the crash sites in lower Manhattan; Arlington, Virginia; and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Our marketing efforts paid off over many months as the number of contributions snowballed, and as we were able to forge alliances with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History as well as other museums and historical societies, which gave the site useful imprimaturs. Looking at just one section of the site, the one that accepted personal narratives, we had 28 submissions by the end of January 2002, 328 by the end of March, 693 by May, 948 by July, and 1,624 by August 2002. As media attention increased in the period just before the first anniversary of September 11, with major stories on the project on CNN, MSNBC, the Associated Press, as well as hundreds of newspapers, our numbers went exponentially higher. On September 11, 2002, alone we received more than 13,000 personal stories, including hundreds from direct witnesses of the events.

That last note raises a critical second point: These efforts and the growth of the archive led to both a broad response from around the country and the world, as well as from particular audiences we were especially trying to reach. Surely it is easier to garner a general public response via a website than to reach a small set of targeted contributors. But what we found happened as the project grew is that with the sheer number of contributions from the general public, it became much easier to gather materials from those directly involved with the events of September 11. Because of our prominence and partnerships with major institutions, we found that key constituencies had heard about us even before we contacted them and were very interested in contributing important historical materials to us, or if they had not heard of our project, were much more willing once they went to our site. We had achieved a sort of “presence” and “critical mass” that led to a greater and greater number of contributions and some valuable acquisitions, such as the real-time electronic communications of a group of co-workers evacuating lower Manhattan. Other groups, including Here Is New York, which gathered thousands of stunning photos of the city in the aftermath of September 11, asked us to serve as the repository of their own collections.35

The explosion of online collecting following September 11 was part of a larger change in Internet culture that the attacks precipitated. As the Pew Internet and American Life Project has shown, more and more people turned to the Internet as a “commons” after September 11; it became a place to communicate and comment rather than just surf for news. Although most Americans still got their news through traditional media outlets such as newspapers and television and overall Internet usage actually declined in the days immediately following the attacks, an unprecedented number of people used the Internet to share their feelings and perspectives on the tragedies. For example, nearly 20 million Americans used email to rekindle old friendships after September 11. Even more pertinent to the present discussion, 13 percent of Internet users participated in online discussions after the attacks. This interactivity represented an entirely new role for the Internet as a place for community-making and spontaneous documentation. “For the first time,” wrote one electronic newsletter editor, “the nation and the world could talk with itself, doing what humans do when the innocent suffer: cry, inform, and most important, tell the story together.” More specifically, people approached the Internet as a place to debate the United States government’s response to terrorism (46 percent), to find or give consolation (22 percent), and to explore ways of dealing locally with the attacks and their aftermath (19 percent). Such usage of the Internet will only grow in the years to come.36 <ls>

Surely not every collecting website will have the scale or results that the September 11 projects have had. Nor should they; not every historical project has a universe of possible contributors equivalent to that of the September 11 Digital Archive. Regardless of size, however, the payoff can be tremendous in a successful online collecting project. The massive capacity of the web means that historians can push beyond the selectivity of paper collections to create more comprehensive archives with multiple viewpoints and multiple formats (including audio and video as well as text). Given the open access of the web, it seems appropriate to cast the widest possible net (as it were) in projects like the September 11 Digital Archive, rather than focus on figures such as government leaders who will almost certainly dominate coverage in print. These archives, we hope, will partially make up for their lack of a curator’s touch by their size, scope, and immediacy. The nature and extent of what you can gather, though clearly different from a traditional oral history project or museum effort, may be just as enlightening and important as a future historical resource, and likely will grow more so as an increasing percentage of our communications and expressions occur in digital media.

Upon reflection, it appears that these online collections of the future are not unlike the very first history of Herodotus, with the potential to promote an inclusive and wide-ranging view of the historical record. In his travels around the Mediterranean region, Herodotus recorded the sentiments of both Persians and Greeks, common people in addition to leading figures, competing accounts, legends as well as facts. He wanted to save all of these stories before they were forgotten so that the color of the past would not be lost. And as he told his audience, he was also cataloging and recounting it all because in the future people might have different notions of what or who is important: “I will go forward in my account, covering alike the small and great cities of mankind. For of those that were great in earlier times most have now become small, and those that were great in my time were small in the time before. Since, then, I know that man’s good fortune never abides in the same place, I will make mention of both alike.”37 Using the Internet to collect history shares this vision: it is undoubtedly a more democratic form of history than found in selective physical archives or nicely smoothed historical narratives, and it shares democracy’s messiness, contradictions, and disorganization–as well as its inclusiveness, myriad viewpoints, and vibrant popular spirit.

31 Pew Internet and American Life Project, “One Year Later: September 11 and the Internet” (Washington, D.C.: Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2002). See also Bruce A. Williams and Michael X. Delli Carpini, “Heeeeeeeeeeeere’s Democracy!” Chronicle of Higher Education, 19 April 2002, 14.

32 Lane Collins, Geoffrey Hicks, and Marie Pelkey, Where Were You: September 11th, 2001, ↪link 6.32.

33 Both the September 11 project and the 2000 election project were launched under the auspices of the Library’s larger web preservation effort named MINERVA (Mapping the INternet Electronic Resources Virtual Archive). See ↪link 6.33a. For the projects, see Library of Congress, The September 11 Web Archive, ↪link 6.33b; Library of Congress, Election 2002 Web Archive, ↪link 6.33c. For an overview of collection statistics, see Library of Congress, “Welcome,” The September 11 Web Archive, ↪link 6.33d.

34 CHNM and the American Social History Project, The September 11 Digital Archive, ↪link 6.34.

35 Here Is New York: A Democracy of Photographs, ↪link 6.35.

36 Pew Internet and American Life Project, The Commons of the Tragedy and How Americans Used the Internet After the Terror Attack (Washington, D.C.: Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2001); quotation from The Commons of the Tragedy. See also Amy Harmon, “The Toll: Real Solace in a Virtual World: Memorials Take Root on the Web,” New York Times, 11 September 2002, G39. For more on the growth of Internet usage, especially as a place for communication, expression, and dialogue, see Deborah Fallows, The Internet and Daily Life (Washington, D.C.: Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2004).

37 Herodotus, The History, trans. David Grene (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 35.