A Digital Archive for 9/11

George Mason University preserves E-mails and videos that chronicle a tragedy.

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"Two planes just crashed into both World Trade Center towers in NYC!" Lisa Hollingsworth wrote in the subject line of an E-mail sent at 9:24 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. "Terrorists? We shall see...This is the part about living in Washington that makes me nervous."

Nineteen minutes later, American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon, the third of four planes to go down that day.

Hollingsworth's note is one of hundreds of E-mails from the hours and days after Sept. 11, 2001, that now reside in the September 11 Digital Archive, an effort to preserve a slice of the digital materials and memorials that might otherwise be swallowed in the maw of the recycling bin. According to the site's organizers, these files, taken together, form a new category of primary source documentation.

"[September 11] was the first big event where people went to the Web to do their documenting," says Tom Scheinfeldt, the assistant director of George Mason University's Center for History and New Media and codirector of the archive. "In that respect, it is the first event for which we have this digital record."

In the same way that private letters from decades and centuries ago are an important source for historians, Scheinfeldt and his colleagues believe that the "born digital" material—documents that began life on a memory chip, like E-mails and digital photos—will be vital to future historians.

"When historians write the history of 9/11, they won't be able to avoid born-digital materials," Scheinfeldt says. "The primary sources for 9/11 are not letters, they're E-mails.

But the sheer volume of material in the digital age creates new challenges for historians. The many online tributes to the victims of a major tragedy, from E-mails to poems recited on YouTube to art uploaded on image-sharing sites, are the Internet's equivalent of placing a bouquet for Princess Diana at the gates of Kensington Palace. It can all jumble together quickly without a little context. And online materials memorializing major events have only grown in number and breadth in the six years since the terrorist attacks.

"One of our goals as history educators is to get students in touch with the primary sources. At the same time, with this unprecedented access to primary documents, it's also incumbent on us to teach users what they're looking at," Scheinfeldt says.

Other archivists, such as those at Virginia Tech who continue to collect material from the horrific shootings on April 16, 2007, at the Blacksburg campus, have built on the September 11 Digital Archive's model to form their own repositories for nonmaterial sources.

"The half-life for materials on the Web is much shorter than [that for] physical artifacts," notes Brent Jesiek, the manager of Virginia Tech's Center for Digital Discourse and Culture and the administrator of the April 16 Archive, which uses technology donated by the September 11 Archive. "A year from now, even a couple of months from now, where's this stuff going to be?"