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Because it is gone now

Teaching the September 11 Digital Archive

By Claire Potter

I love you… . the building was hit by something. I don’t know if I’m gonna get out, but I love you very much. I…I hope I’ll see you later. ‘Bye.
—Voicemail from Ken Van Auken from the World Trade Center, contributed by his widow

As a citizen, it is sometimes a jolt to realize that September 11 is now a decade in the past. As a teacher of modern United States history who ended her twentieth-century survey last fall with the attack on the twin towers, it was even more of a jolt to realize that a first-year college student who had matriculated in September 2010 might recall only the faint outlines of an event that definitively altered the course of our century. A student who entered high school in that same month would likely have been familiar with images of the smoke billowing out of the World Trade Center towers and the steaming stacks of rubble known for months as “the Pile.” But that same student would have only vague memories of adult anxieties, cars in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey train stations awaiting commuters who never came home, or the frantic efforts to reach family and friends who might have had business downtown that day. A student entering middle school this coming fall will have been merely born into the world that al-Qaeda and George W. Bush created. Regardless what level of history course you are teaching, your students will have no accurate memories of this very recent past and yet they might yearn to understand the events through which their parents and siblings lived.

As I scrolled through the September 11 Digital Archive, trying to collect my thoughts about how I might teach such very different audiences with these rich materials, I couldn’t help but think about one of my own nephews who will enter college in the fall. Several years after the attacks on the twin towers, he came across a picture of himself taken at Windows on the World, the sky-top restaurant where so many people from different nations died on 9/11, and where his great-grandmother enjoyed treating her younger relatives to lunch (Figure 1). Recalling memories of the view and his participation in this family ritual, he then turned abruptly to his toddler brother, so young that he had yet to speak his own first word. “You,” he said, “Will never go there. Because it is gone now!”

Figure 1. A fixture of the New York skyline and tourist stop since the 1960s, the World Trade Center towers are seen here in March 2001, six months before the attacks of September 11. The history of the neighborhood around the towers is just one of the topics explored in the September 11 Digital Archive, which contains a wealth of documents, audio recordings, photos, and video footage related to the events of that day. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Material objects, paper records, and people have disappeared, lost in the fire and chaos of attacks on New York, the Pentagon, and the two jumbo jets full of passengers who believed they were going to California that day. But fortunately they are not gone.

In the design of the 9/11 Archive, it is easy to see the creative hand of the City University of New York’s American Social History Project (ASHP), founded in 1981 to curate the social and cultural history of the United States and promote the newest technologies and active learning methods. The workers, citizens, and survivors whose stories made history that clear September day have left their voices in the intriguing, emotional, and richly descriptive artifacts collected on, and linked to, this website. It is a particularly promising source for teaching history. The site blends the sense of discovery and ease of access that causes students to use the web as a resource in the first place with standard genres of evidence that could train those same students to use conventional archives as well: written documents, images, video, oral histories, and audio “found” objects such as voice mail and spontaneous tape recordings.

Funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloane Foundation, the September 11 Digital Archive is a collaboration between the ASHP, now housed at the Center for Media and Learning at CUNY Graduate Center, and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. In 2003 it was accepted as part of the permanent collection of the Library of Congress as its first major digital acquisition, and was closed to new materials the following year (Figure 2). The site designers are currently launching a redesign, now in Beta test, that promises to make the labyrinth of different projects to which the Archive is linked, as well as its own materials, more attractive and easier to navigate. While the archiving of 9/11 on the Web and in different projects around the country is by no means complete, this project is a gift for history teachers at all levels. Through it, archivists have collected their own material, as well as links to other digital collections that preserve the history of the September 11 attacks in images, video, sound, and print.

Figure 2. Student Ronnie Rogers composed this poem in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks for a Hip Hop Activism class at the East Harlem Tutorial Program in New York. Documents like this form one part of the September 11 Digital Archive, which donated its entire collection to the Library of Congress in 2003. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Continue reading this article >>
• History of “Ground Zero”
• Oral Histories
• Multiple Sources for Teaching

Claire Bond Potter is professor of History and American studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown Connecticut. She specializes in feminism, political history and cultural criticism, and is the author of the academic blog Tenured Radical.

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