Press Release: Voices of History in the Present Tense Graduate Center Creates Digital Archive of 9/11 Accounts

I look back and as I do, I see the top of the south tower start sinking. The building is sinking into itself! It¹s collapsing. I can hear a sound like a freight train coming and I can see this mounting mushroom cloud growing and growing and exploding down the narrow streets towards me. People around me are screaming. They start running everywhere. We are in a narrow area with many benches and fences and people are running and screaming. They are running to the edge of the island where there is no place to go but in the water. (Excerpt from an account. The full story can be read at http://911digitalarchive.org/stories/details/48.)

In a twenty-first century approach to recording and preserving history, the City University of New York Graduate Center is creating a permanent digital archive of first-hand accounts of the September 11 attacks and their aftermath. Launched on March 11 --- the six-month anniversary of the attack --- the archive will be available on line to those wishing to contribute their stories as well as those studying the material. Created by the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning at The Graduate Center, the September 11 Digital Archive will help provide a legacy of personal expression, a historical context for understanding the events, and a model for new applications of digital technology in the work of historians and archivists.

The September 11 Digital Archive is funded by a $700,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, to be divided between the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning and its collaborator on this and other projects, the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA.

In addition to traditional narratives, the first-hand accounts will include such new media as email messages, digital images, streaming video and audio, and links to other sites offering information and views about September 11. Other significant web-based resources related to the attacks will be organized and annotated, and the September 11 Digital Archive will backup otherwise ephemeral material ‹ such as unmaintained websites produced in the immediate aftermath of September 11 ‹ thereby generating a permanent record of content produced on the spur of the moment. The level of funding already obtained for the project helps ensure that stability.

The public is encouraged to contribute their experiences as well as their digital records to the Archive, which they can do directly when they visit the website. Since everyone has the hardware or knowledge required to participate, the project plans to collaborate with schools and digital education projects to provide access and encourage interaction with people who might normally be unable to contribute.

As a historical occurrence, the events of 9/11 have been compared to Pearl Harbor, thereby also allowing for comparisons in the approach to studying history itself. In the case of Pearl Harbor, much of the immediate personal response was filtered through time, with memories and diaries falling by the wayside. The 9/11 attacks offer the creators of the September 11 Digital Archive an opportunity to learn from that lesson while, at the same time, incorporating new technology into the archival process. The result is a harvest of records that are personal yet historic, immediate yet permanent, extensive yet accessible. In addition to providing a historical context for understanding the events and their consequences, creating the September 11 Digital Archive will generate new software tools to help historians collect, preserve, and write history in the new century.

New technology has not only generated an opportunity to create a whole new kind of archive, but it has also generated a whole new kind of material to be archived in the first place. According to a special report produced by the UCLA Internet Project, 57.1 percent of e-mail users -- more than 100 million Americans -- received or sent messages of emotional support, messages of concern for others, or questions about victims of the September 11 attacks. The survey also found that 22.9 percent of Internet users received e-mail messages of support or sympathy from outside the United States. "Tens of millions of Americans shared an emotional connection through e-mail after the attacks -- communication that in almost all instances would not have occurred through telephone or letters," said Jeffrey Cole, director of the UCLA Internet Project.

The grant supporting the project is part of series given by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to preserve the raw material of history, in this case enabling those who actually participated in the events to contribute to the historical record. The Sloan Foundation, a philanthropic nonprofit institution, was established in 1934 by Alfred Pritchard Sloan, Jr., then President and Chief Executive Officer of the General Motors Corporation.

The Graduate Center is the doctorate-granting institution of The City University of New York. The only consortium of its kind in the nation, The Graduate Center draws its faculty of more than 1,600 members mainly from the CUNY senior colleges and cultural and scientific institutions throughout New York City.

According to a recent National Research Council report, more than a third of The Graduate Center's rated Ph.D. programs rank among the nation's top 20 at public and private institutions, nearly a quarter are among the top ten when compared to publicly supported institutions alone, and more than half are among the top five programs at publicly supported institutions in the northeast.

Submitted on: MAR 1, 2002

Category: Press Room