The Mason Spirit

Sept. 11 Digital Archive Captures the Unheard Voices

After the first plane struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, the nation and the world paused in disbelief. When the second plane hit the center and then another struck the Pentagon and another crashed in Pennsylvania, thousands desperately tried to contact their loved ones by phone. When the phone lines failed, people turned to the Internet, and a tidal wave of e-mails rushed through phone, cable, and DSL lines to New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania from all over the world.

Six months after the attacks, these e-mails, web logs, personal communications, and reflections have been, and continue to, be recorded in a digital archive created by the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University and the American Social History Project at the City University of New York, thanks to a shared $700,000 grant to each institution from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The foundation is a philanthropic, nonprofit institution established in 1934 by Alfred Pritchard Sloan Jr., a former president and CEO of General Motors Corporation.

"Our goal is to create a permanent record of the events of Sept. 11, 2001," says Dan Cohen, one of CHNM's project leaders. "In the process, we hope to foster some positive legacies of those terrible events by allowing people to tell their stories, making those stories available to a wide audience, providing a historical context for understanding those events and their consequences, and helping historians and archivists improve their practices based on the lessons we learn from this project."

"Our web site is the only Sept. 11 web site that is completely interactive," says Jim Sparrow, another project leader. "You can record your personal story, save and annotate your e-mails and images, view those of others, and find other online resources related to Sept. 11."

Sparrow's pioneering Blackout History project, which reconstructed the dramatic social responses to the 1965 and 1977 blackouts in New York City and beyond, established the format and methodology for using the World Wide Web as a research and historical forum on which both the Exploring and Collecting History Online Project, also funded through Sloan foundation, and 9/11 Digital Archive are based.

CHNM invites members of the George Mason community and their family and friends to contribute to the site at or

"We are encouraging people to submit their e-mails, digital images, and home videos to tell their own story," says Cohen. "Our emphasis is on grassroots collecting and particularly on capturing the voices that haven't been heard before."

"The event was a broad national experience, and we want to capture first-person and bystander experiences," says Cohen. "The immediate scope of the project is to preserve, and later contextualize, the events so that they can be taught."

The archive will also use these events as a way of assessing how history is being preserved in the 21st century and as an opportunity to develop free software tools to help historians do a better job of collecting, preserving, and writing history.

- Michelle Nery