Preserving the Artifacts, Memories & History of September 11, 2001Following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, in America, a large number of memorials to the tragedy, its victims and heroes, began to spring up across the nation. Makeshift memorials and shrines were created at the World Trade Center site, the Pentagon, and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, as well as in front of hundreds of firehouses across the U.S. Thousands of bits of history have also presented themselves in the form of photographs, stories, memorial candles, American flags, poems, missing person posters, emails, and phone messages -- items that represent a spontaneous archive of the events of September 11. "Whether it's the shards of paper from the Twin Towers found in Brooklyn, or the messages on the computer screens, on voice-mail, or on cell-phones, these words are the truth," said Nanci A. Young, Chair of the College and University Archives Section of the Society of American Archivists. "They console us, they make us question, they stir up the soul."
The almost unfathomable amount of material generated by the world's response to September 11 presented a challenge to archivists, historians, and government agencies across the world who have worked to gather and preserve the artifacts. During the process, they faced a large number of decisions: How do you catalogue an email sent by a Pentagon staffer to his family, or a voice mail left by a passenger on Flight 93 for her husband? Which of the thousands of cards sent by schoolchildren to New York City firefighters do you save? Who should oversee the collection and preservation of September 11 artifacts? Which museum should become their caretaker? Projects worked to capture oral history about the events of September 11. Internet message board posts from the time of the attack are being saved. Sites of public mourning are being preserved. "We're the caretakers now," said Barbara Black, curator for the Historical and Genealogical Society of Somerset County, an organization that has spent hundreds of volunteer hours collecting, documenting, and preserving the items left at the makeshift Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville, PA.
A large number of groups are working to provide centralized locations for the items, stories, and photos that tell the story of 9/11. The Library of Congress commissioned and organized the September 11 Web Archive in order to preserve the Web expressions of individual people, groups, the press, and institutions from around the world, in the aftermath of the attacks in the U.S. on September 11, 2001. A sister project, the Television Archives, collected video coverage of September 11 and its aftermath from television stations around the world. Columbia University led a major oral history project on the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, conducting more than 300 audiotaped interviews with a wide variety of people who were directly and indirectly affected by the catastrophe.
At the local level, nearly every kind of group or organization with a specific interest collected stories, mementoes, and information to help understand how people were affected and responded to the events of September 11. The New York Fire Museum collected images and stories about the rescue efforts and the memorials created in honor of firefighters lost in the tragedy. The South Street Seaport Museum gathered information about the maritime community's response to the crisis. The New York Center for Urban Folklore Culture collected photographs of the spontaneous memorial shrines that sprung up all over New York City. The New York Historical Society invited New Yorkers to share their reminiscences of the people and events of September 11, 2001. Archivists and volunteers worked very hard to make sure that the stories, photos and mementoes of September 11 were not overlooked or lost.
September 11, 2001 is a day that most of us will never forget. Yet, for our children and future generations, it will be nothing more than a chapter in the history books. These archives - collected images, stories, and mementos - will be their link to understanding how their ancestors and others were affected and responded to the tragedies and challenges of 9/11. Thanks to the work of thousands of volunteers, historians, and archivists around the country, the world will always remember.