Review: The September 11 Digital Archive

The events that took place on September 11th, 2001 were pivotal in defining American society today.  The impact of the terrorist attacks was so significant, time is divided between pre-and-post-9/11.   Most people can remember exactly what they were doing on the morning of September 11th, partially because the attacks were a shared traumatic experience; Americans watched the events unfold live on television or within a few minutes of occurrence.  The vivid media coverage was inescapable, as footage was replayed over and over again for days and months following the attacks.  The September 11 Digital Archive is a public collection featuring electronic media produced in the wake of 9/11.  It provides a unique and diverse account of the 9/11 attacks by collecting, preserving, and presenting a diverse range of digital media related to the attacks. The Archive was created in 2002 by the American Social History Project and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Initially funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Archive partnered with the Library of Congress to ensure long-term preservation in 2003.

The September 11 Digital Archive is changing the way history is being recorded and preserved in the twenty-first century by collecting first-hand accounts through emails, texts, and other electronic communications, digital artwork and photography, video and audio recordings, and a range of other types of digital content.  The site uses an exploratory framework which encourages the reader to navigate the content according to their interests.  This type of structure is suggested by the search bar on the main page, accompanied by a navigational menu for quick access to pages such as, ‘Collections’, ‘FAQs about 9/11’, and a ‘Contribute’ page, where readers can share their own experiences of 9/11.  The ‘Collections’ page provides the most structure when browsing the content.  Unfortunately, the sense of organization is lost beyond the title page.  Often, the links to content have vague names, no descriptions, and must be downloaded to view (without any indication of what will be downloaded, and no guarantee that it will open). Without any written or visual cues, it’s hard for a reader to stay engaged.  Therefore, finding quality content feels less intuitive and more up to chance.  However, once you do stumble upon the content, it provides fascinating insight across a range of dimensions regarding 9/11.

The Archive boasts more than 150,000 digital items.  To name a few noteworthy collections, the “Personal Accounts” collection contains reflections from individuals and organizations in the days following the attacks.  Here, you can find letters to heroes on Flight 93, personal 911 stories that were posted on web-based forums, reports from broadcast journalists and recorded oral histories of personal experiences.  You can also see how people communicated with one another by sifting through transcripts of text message and AIM conversations, or a chain of emails sent via Blackberry from a group of co-workers as they evacuated lower Manhattan.  For younger generations without a 9/11 story, these intimate records paint a vivid picture of what it was like to experience the event from multiple perspectives.  In the “Digital Media Projects,” you can find slideshows, image mash-ups, and websites that were created following the attacks.  This type of content demonstrates how the internet served as an important space for the public to cope with the tragedy.

Overall, The September 11 Digital Archive is a profoundly valuable resource which covers a significant piece of US history.  It offers a unique interpretation of 9/11 and its aftermath, by showcasing a diverse body of content from the standpoint of the American public.  However, issues of functionality and design should be addressed in order to increase accessibility and engage more readers.

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