Found History

by Tom Scheinfeldt

Finding History in the September 11 Digital Archive

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Because it follows from some talks I’ve given in the past, this may be cheating on my resolution to start writing more. But I think it really belongs here on Found History, so I’m going to post it anyway. In some ways my work on the September 11 Digital Archive inspired this blog, and I think I should explain how.

If there was ever a time when public history could be defined simply as history written for the public, that time is surely past. The counterculture movements of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the postmodernist turn, the culture wars of the 1990s, and now the Internet have made our publics aware of multiple narratives, competing sources, and wary of our authority as historians. Our publics are now instinctively attuned to the discursive nature of history, and they are unwilling to sit quietly at the receiving end. Public history—as it’s now commonplace to say—demands a “shared authority.”

towers.jpgThis new reality is more easily accommodated by our intellects than by our institutions. Archival and library collections, for instance, remain inherently authoritative—archivists and librarians collect and manage collections and publics are (or are not) given access to these materials. The situation is much the same in most other historical outlets. In museum exhibitions, for example, curators exhibit collections and publics are exhibited to. While trends toward “interactivity” have done something to alleviate this situation, in most cases professionals still set the terms, telling the public where, when, and how they may interact with historical materials and predetermined content. This does not always sit well amongst an increasingly sophisticated and choosy public. New forums such as the Internet allow for more than pre-determined interactivity, but also for real authorship, and an experienced public now expects productive participation in our stacks and public programming.

The situation is all the more acute when dealing with topics in contemporary history. Certainly in the case of September 11, 2001, there is little we as historians can tell the public that they don’t already know for themselves. September 11 was undoubtedly the most experienced event in American history. There must be very few Americans who haven’t seen the collapse of the world trade center from every angle, in color and in black and white, in slow motion and in time lapse, set to music, set to speeches, and overlain with photographs of victims, their families, their attackers, and their elected officials. In many respects—and with no intended disrespect to those families directly affected by the attacks—we have all experienced September 11 equally. At this point nobody needs or wants an historical expert to tell him or her what it was all about. Five years after the attacks, a better role for historians and historical institutions may be simply to sit and listen.

pentagon.jpgThe September 11 Digital Archive is in some respects an attempt to define this new role for the historical professions, to deal with the problem of “history as it happens”, and to accommodate the public’s new conviction that it should and will be heard. Specifically, the Archive works to collect stories, emails, voicemails, digital images, office documents and other “born-digital” materials relating to the attacks and their aftermath, not only from those directly affected by the attacks, but from the general public as well. Intended as an experiment to determine whether or not it is possible to collect large numbers of source documents over the Internet, the Archive has proven its hypothesis and now stands among the nation’s premier repositories of September 11 history.

Yet, though our collecting efforts were always firmly on the public, we didn’t fully anticipate the role the Archive would serve among that public. This was to meet, at least in some small part, those new public expectations I described earlier—to provide an institutional location for public authorship of history and bottom-up interaction in historical endeavor.

pyramids.jpgAs it stands today, the Archive has collected more than 150,000 digital objects. Some of these materials are truly unique in the history of collections—real time transcripts of wireless email conversations, Internet chat logs, digital voicemail recordings—and stand unambiguously as important primary source documents. Other materials are more easily recognizable—for example, the thousands of personal narratives, memorial objects and pieces of artwork produced and contributed in the aftermath of the attacks—but are less clear in their status as historical documents. On the one hand these narratives, memorial objects, and artworks are primary documents: that is, they are contemporary representations of historic events. On the other hand it is clear that many of these materials were created with a real historical self-consciousness: that is, the people who contributed these materials were very much aware of their participation as actors in the historical process. In this sense, these materials stand not as primary documents, but as secondary narratives or works of historiography.

iwojima.jpgIn fact, many contributors come right out and say so, and the ones who don’t often let on in other ways. All indications point to the fact that people are creating materials specifically to be placed in the Archive. Our logs show that our contributors return over and over again to review their contributions, to see where they stand in the Archive and how they are being categorized, displayed and used. Moreover, this is true not only of the stories we solicit, but also for the digital artworks and digital animations people submit to the Archive. In both cases, there’s a clear concern about ownership and authorship and, by extension, about participation in making history. Look at these images and read these stories, and you’ll see our contributors wrestling not only with their grief and anger, but also with September 11’s place in history, either among the pyramids of the ancients or the iconic images of the First and Second World Wars. In this way the September 11 Digital Archive is not simply comprised of passive remnants of the past, but rather stands as an institutional location for the active and intentional historical participation of the general public. Visitors to the Archive do not come to receive history, they come to navigate historical sources, to engage historical discourse, and to produce their own. In this the Archive points toward new ways of accommodating our sophisticated public’s sophisticated expectations. From the outset, we saw the Archive as an experiment, and like any good experiment, the unintended outcomes have been easily as interesting as the hypothesized results. One of these is a treasure trove of found history.

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