When I hear “digital archives” the very first thing that pops in my mind is The Sonic Memorial Project. Before moving to New York, I led an Urban Studies study group and created a week-long educational trip to the city about its cultural landscape, largely focusing on its changing neighborhoods and historic, far reaching impact. As an outsider—living in the middle of the country at the time—I had to rely on whatever scholarship, journalism, and art I could get my hands on to help me research and teach. Although at first glance there seems to be a wealth of information available about New York City’s cultural geography, most of what I was finding was from very select perspectives and points of view. It was the same old song we all experience in research—the further back in history I went, the less diverse and more filtered the information became. This is not to discount what I was finding (it was useful), but just to say it was limiting.
In one of my marathon Googling sessions I stumbled upon The Sonic Memorial Project. On its site stories about the life-cycle of the World Trade Center are featured, such as “Radio Row” (about the neighborhood pre-WTC), “The Building Stewardesses” (about the women employed to be “the face” of the WTC to gain public support), and “Fresh Kills” (about the landfill where all 9/11 debris was taken). Like The September 11 Digital Archive, anyone may contribute. The Sonic Memorial Project served as my model for how I researched and understood different neighborhoods and communities.
Over the past couple years I have seen other similar collaborative digital projects emerge to document an idea, event, and/or place (often in response to a political debate or current event). (A personal favorite is Mapping Main St., although not an “archive,” it serves a similar role.) These types of online projects interest me for a couple reasons. The most obvious is they are democratizing history (especially when they are deliberate in their attempts to reach out to different, usually underrepresented, communities). The other reason is they are collecting information as history is happening, rather than in retrospect and hindsight. It does create a huge “everything and the kitchen sink” database of information to shift through—but when organized and managed (filed, cataloged, tagged…) properly, that is ideal rather than a hindrance.