The Digital Archive as Process

In exploring the archives related to this week’s readings, I was struck less by the experience of using them, than by the materials they captured. Certainly, I don’t mean to underplay the differences in using a traditional archive and something like the 9/11 Digital Archive. When I was doing work at UPenn last summer, I was stymied more than once by the barriers to access (particularly archivists on vacation and summer hours). That electronic archives are easily accessible, searchable, and multimedia-rich does much to distract from very real questions of preservation—questions raised in Ben’s Q/A, I’m later, sure, our class.

What I’m more interested in discussing, however, is what is going into these archives. At first, I was a bit flummoxed by the scale and variety of materials in the 9/11 Digital Archive. Given that the archive supports many different types of content—everything from NYFD Action plans to QuickTime videos, camera phone images to Flash video games—I’m inclined to forgive a bit of messiness. In fact, there might even be some function to usability issues. While I immediately honed on material of interest on NYPL’s What’s on the menu?, I found the richest and most unexpected materials when I began wandering the 9/11 Archive.

Given that this is a 9/11 archive, I expected heart-wrenching media. Many images, like this one, from the Library of Congress, capture the human toll of the attacks. The Sonic Memorial, available through Special Collections, creates a record that I cannot imagine outside the web. (I’m thinking in particular of one story in which an elevator operator discusses how the wind made the South Tower creak like the hull of a ship). And Mark Fiore’s animations capture the political zeitgeist of the Bush era.

What surprised me was how much of the material I did not know how to read. In Miscellaneous animations, for example, there were a number of flash videos and games whose racism, anger, and vengefulness I found difficult to watch. Many of the videos evince a clash of cultures through a collision of religions, at which point violence defines winner and losers. I’m thinking, in particular, of “A Bin Laden Christmas,” in which an amply-armed GI supplants Old Saint Nick.

Such items belie what I expected would be a solemn commemoration of lost lives. Yet, if the function of an archive is to record, then accuracy depends upon capturing the spectrum of responses to the event—some of which are ugly. In this sense, the 9/11 Digital Archive is not simply a record of the event, but the process 9/11. This, I think, is the opportunity presented by the crowd-sourced digital archive: to capture the messiness of texts and contexts.

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