Remembering the Creation of the September 11 Digital Archive

Shortly after the September 11 attacks, the team here at the Center for History and New Media, in collaboration with our partners at the American Social History Project at CUNY, began building a new kind of digital archive, one that would be open to all contributions from anyone who wanted to contribute a memory, a photograph, an email, or whatever they wanted preserved. With the support of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, we were able to assemble a team of collaborators committed to collecting and preserving the history of that terrible day. What began as a crazy idea turned into a project that now houses 72,000 personal stories, more than 6,000 images, and more than 900 audio and video files. The September 11 Digital Archive is truly one of the richest collections related to the history of the events surrounding the events of that day and their aftermath.

Because the project became the model for countless open digital archives since 2001, we wanted to pause and look back at the earliest days of the Archive project. Below are the memories of three of the many dozens of faculty, staff, and students here at George Mason University who worked on our part of the project.

Dan Cohen (Dean of Libraries; Vice Provost for Information Collaboration, Northeastern University)
I started working at George Mason University and the Center for History and New Media just nine months before 9/11. I had joined the Center to work on a history of science project called ECHO — an acronym for “Exploring and Collecting History Online” — which, as the name suggests, was attempting to find new ways to acquire, preserve, and present materials and recollections that would be important for future historians to have. This seemed especially relevant for science, since most scientists who have ever lived are still alive today. If we are to write and understand the history of science, we need to take proactive measures right now to ensure a complete record for tomorrow’s researchers.

In the weeks after the extreme shock of 9/11 — I lost a childhood friend on one of the planes — CHNM regrouped and thought about what that tragic day meant in terms of American history, and also whether we should do something in digital media to memorialize or contextualize it. In New York City, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation was thinking along the same lines, and since the foundation had funded ECHO, we coalesced around the idea of using the web to collect the history of 9/11.

At that point the ECHO project was still relatively new. The techniques and technology we were using and creating were only partially formed and not entirely tested in the field. And yet we were able to quickly turnaround a site and a broad outreach strategy based on that relatively narrow forerunner initiative. I’m still amazed at how much we collected, but of course much of that was due to the hard work of my colleagues at CHNM and the American Social History Project at CUNY. The September 11 Digital Archive is now viewed largely as a “digital” project, but it succeeded because of a massive elbow-grease and shoe-leather effort.

Looking back, it is also notable how the crucible of the event and our reaction to it forged so many tools that we have used over the last two decades, leading to important software platforms like Omeka and an appreciation for the active collection of digital files before they drift into inaccessibility. Personally, the collaboration and principles of the September 11 Digital Archive remain with me to this day, and still animate my work in history, libraries, and archives.

Jim Safley (Senior Developer and Metadata Specialist at Digital Scholar)
Less than a year after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Center for History and New Media hired me to make sense of the growing number of resources they were collecting for the September 11 Digital Archive. By the time I arrived, they had already collected thousands of personal stories, emails, and images related to 9/11, but due to the website’s increasing popularity, there was a demand to expand the collection to include disparate aggregations of resources, hard drives full of media, and even non-digital artifacts. My responsibilities were to familiarize myself with and organize the material, to formulate strategies for digitization and long-term preservation, to act as an intermediary between content creators and people seeking permission to use their material, and to field technical questions about the Archive.

Coming from a background in traditional archives and special collections, I wasn’t fully prepared for the move to digital media, but the fundamentals were the same, like the preeminence of metadata and having a systematic plan for accession, access, and preservation. I learned the nuances of digital technology on the job, which ultimately prepared me for the large-scale migrations from our earlier, primitive database to standards-based content management systems.

Given the Archive’s subject matter, I cannot speak of my early years there without mentioning the emotional impact of the work. There were times I found it challenging to familiarize myself with the material, not only for technical reasons, but because of the emotional toll it imposed. The raw sentimentality and distressing honesty of the material was sometimes difficult to process. I bore witness to everyone’s grief and anger at their most vulnerable moments. Much of the content was poignant and reflective, but some of it was offensive and repugnant, reflecting us at our best and our worst. As the collections specialist my duty was to treat the material objectively, respect its historical value, and preserve it for use in future scholarship.

Mills Kelly (Director, RRCHNM)
I started work at George Mason University and RRCHNM–CHNM in those days–exactly two weeks before the September 11 attacks. I had come to Mason with a list of ideas for digital projects, but like everyone at the Center that September, I was immediately diverted into helping on the September 11 Digital Archive.

Because of my many responsibilities at the university, I was always a bit player on the Archive project, but I still remember how difficult it was for us to obtain the first 300 contributions to the collection. Those first few weeks after the Archive launched were largely taken up by all of us asking friends, family, and students to write something about their experiences. It’s worth remembering that in 2001, almost no one had ever done what we were asking them to do – upload digital objects and personal stories into a database where those items would be archived in perpetuity. More than one person I asked to write up their personal story responded with some version of, “I’m not sure why you would want my story.”

In this sense, we were really plowing new ground for historians—creating an open archive that anyone could contribute to—and new ground for the public—inviting everyone to tell their story, give us their digital photographs, emails, and other digital artifacts. The wide proliferation of similar digital archives focused on the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates just how normalized that out-of-left-field idea has become.

My biggest contribution to those early days of the project fits into Dan’s emphasis on elbow-grease and shoe-leather efforts. I took on the Shanksville part of the project and drove to the almost impossible to find crash site just outside of that tiny Pennsylvania town. These days there is a national monument on the site, but when I arrived it was just a scar on the side of a hill with a very informal memorial created by people in the community. I all but went door to door begging people to write up their stories. Only one of the local residents I spoke to in that first trip even owned a personal computer and so everyone had a hard time even understanding what I was asking them to do that day. Now they would just dial up Facebook on their phones and post away, but in 2001 I had to explain again and again what it meant to contribute to a digital archive. I’m very glad that we were able to capture the Shanksville memorial in its raw state before it became a formal site of memory.