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American Social History Project • Center for Media and Learning

September 11 Digital Archive Collects 30,000 Contributions

Published March 24, 2011
9-11 float from The September 11 Digital Archive
The September 11 Digital Archive records the diverse ways Americans have commemorated the attacks

Did you send an email to a friend or family member on September 11th? In the hours and days following the attacks, more than 100 million Americans did. As with so many materials registering the social and cultural experiences of ordinary Americans in the past, however, this ephemeral digital record might slip away from us, even after the passage of only a year. Responding to that possibility, ASHP/CML and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University created the September 11 Digital Archive (http://911digitalarchive.org), a permanent digital repository about the attacks and the public reaction to them. Since its March launch, the Archive has accessioned a diverse collection of over 30,000 contributions, ranging from chat room discussions to interviews with Arab-Americans. In turn, the Archive’s website – which presents a significant fraction of the project’s collection–routinely receives two and half million visits a week, making it one of the most embraced noncommercial locations on the Internet. The project’s staff hopes to cast their archival nets broadly by employing new digital tools, creating a record that will allow the history of the attacks and their aftermath to be told “from the bottom up.”

Image from “Liberty,” a digital folk art creation
A scene from “Liberty,” a digital folk art creation that calls for a protection of civil liberties and the U.S. Constitution in the wake of September 11th.

Collaborating closely with national and local institutions—including the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History and National Public Radio—the Archive has become the repository of choice for the vast digital record precipitated by September 11th. The Archive’s collection has received extensive national and international media coverage, including reports by CNN, New York One, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, El Diario, Mexico’s Univista Television, and 218 local newspapers.

Perhaps some of the most compelling material in the Archive’s holdings are the computer animations and digitally manipulated imagery Americans crafted on their home computers in the wake of 9/11. The project’s director, Fritz Umbach, describes these expressions of public sentiment as digital folk art. “They really do fit all the classic criteria for folk art,” Umbach reports, “they were created for non-commercial reasons, and distributed by non-commercial means. And in many ways, these creations encapsulate the rawness and immediacy of the public reaction.”

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