- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 10, 2008

Photos of makeshift memorials. E-mails letting family members know the sender was safe. The New York Fire Department’s daily action plan at Ground Zero. These images and items from September 11, 2001, and the aftermath of the terrorist attacks are bits of history that may have been relegated to the bottom of a shoe box, slipped into the pages of a scrapbook or discarded forever. However, with innovations in technology, historians are making large collections of recent history accessible and available to millions.

George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media is at the forefront of the new wave of collecting history. The September 11 Digital Archive, the largest of its type, with more than 150,000 items, is among the department’s 40 projects aimed at preserving history with Web resources.

The archive, which began from an initial grant of nearly $800,000 from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, is organized by the Center for History and New Media and the American Social History Project at the City University of New York Graduate Center. In 2003, the September 11 Digital Archive became the Library of Congress’ first digital acquisition.

“You don’t need a warehouse anymore,” says Tom Scheinfeldt, managing director of the Center for History and New Media. “Archives can be held on servers. It is starting to revolutionize the way archivists work.”

When considering digital archives and modern news events, it is somewhat of a chicken-and-egg situation. Because of the immediacy of today’s communication — instant-message conversations, camera-phone pictures and digital voice-mail clips, for example — history is not just recorded by news photographers and anchors. All sorts of pieces of history are recorded by witnesses and also those who were nowhere near the event but wanted to express their feelings, Mr. Scheinfeldt says. That mass of digital history led to the need to catalog it and put the items into context and perspective.

“September 11 is an interesting event,” he says. “It was the first major event of the digital age. It was equally witnessed by everyone. You didn’t have to be at Ground Zero to … experience it. If we are going to be able to tell the story, we need to capture the digital material.”

Like the Internet itself — mostly free and accessible to all — the September 11 archive can be found with the click of a mouse (911digital archive.org). It receives about 1 million unique visitors a year, Mr. Scheinfeldt says.

Other projects at the Center for History and New Media include the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, which uses electronic media to collect, preserve and present the stories and digital records of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma; History Matters, a vast history Web site geared toward high school U.S. history teachers; and developing software to help other historians start up Web sites to showcase their collections.

The Center for History and New Media also helps similar groups organize materials. Virginia Tech’s Center for Digital Discourse and Culture used the technology developed by George Mason to develop its April 16 Archive (www.april16archive.org) in the wake of the shootings at the Blacksburg campus last spring.

There are 1,400 objects in the April 16 Archive, says Brent Jesiek, manager of the Center for Digital Discourse and Culture.

“It is very much an ongoing project,” he says. “We are trying to collect international perspectives. We have information from Korean Web sites and reactions and commentaries from 60 college newspaper outlets. It is a very diverse range.

“Early on, we came to terms that we would only be able to capture a small fraction of what is out there,” Mr. Jesiek says. “We are trying to capture the materials most likely to get lost with the passage of time. Web documents usually get lost within a matter of months. We are not so concerned that an article from a newspaper will get lost, but a firsthand account on a blog on campus might.”

Mr. Jesiek says digital archives have opened up practically limitless opportunities for historians.

“We are only restricted by time and energy,” he says. “It really opens up the possibility of collecting things in a small amount of space. In the future, we hope this will be a valuable resource for scholars.”

Because online historians have few space limitations, the challenge is deciding what is contributing to history and what is overkill. A big task at the Center for Digital Discourse and Culture is choosing which photos make it into the archive. On a DVD of 600 photos, researchers will choose maybe 100 to be archived, Mr. Jesiek says.

The Virginia Tech group is using Omeka, the software designed at George Mason, which will be available as an open source later this year. The software can help everyone from a large museum to a weekend stamp collector create and share an organized online collection, Mr. Scheinfeldt says.

Mr. Jesiek says the Omeka software will “democratize” archives.

“This will provide people with more possibilities,” he says. “If you have a large collection of materials, you can open an archive on the subject.”

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