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Author: Deborah Lines Anderson
Title: September 11, Loss and Creation
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
November 2001

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Source: September 11, Loss and Creation
Deborah Lines Anderson

vol. 4, no. 3, November 2001
Article Type: Editorial

September 11, Loss and Creation

Deborah Lines Andersen

Benchmark: a standard by which something can be measured or judged. [1]

In the last issue of JAHC I wrote that the focus of this column would be on individuals, projects, and writing that set standards, push the envelope, or shed light on the use of computers, of technology, in historical scholarship. It is undoubtedly true that the events of September 11, 2001 have pushed the envelope for the entire world. In thinking about this editorial it was clear that historians, records managers, and archivists have been affected by these horrific events in two rather different ways. Thus the focus for this issue's comments is on loss, and on creation.


Two months after September 11 the sense of loss of lives and security is pervasive in our social gatherings and in our media. The newspapers continue to report on cases of anthrax and attempts to locate the source of the bacteria. The crash of an airplane in New York could be an accident, or an act of terrorism. Afghanistan and the war against Osama bin Laden are featured in the news media on a daily basis. We live with these big events and they will become part of our written history.

Nonetheless, on a far more local and personal note:

  •   The University at Albany sponsored a vigil, memorial service, and teach-in the week of September 11. It now offers counseling to help students and faculty cope with these events, including the stress and anxiety that many are still feeling.
  • Brown University used its halftime football show on October 13 to honor the families of those former Brown football players who were killed.
  • The New York State Museum in Albany, New York has created a permanent exhibit about the day, using the World Trade Center as the central image of the exhibit.
  • The Albany Public Library children's division sponsored a "Thousand Cranes Day." Children in the library created origami cranes that the library sent to children in New York City.
  •   My local library's newsletter for November included a black-boxed "in memoriam" for those individuals killed and affected by these events, ending the text with "Peace on earth. Shalom. Salaam."
  • On September 23 my town's fire department hung an enormous "God Bless America" banner on the local railroad overpass, complementing the flags that started flying on almost every mailbox and house on my street on September 11.
  •   One of my students missed class on October 29 to go to Manhattan and be given ashes from "ground zero"–the closest thing he will have to the remains of his father and brother.

These responses to loss are a necessary part of the grieving process. They also create a dilemma for information specialists and for historians. How can anyone hope to collect all these images and events for posterity? How will this history be recorded and written? The list in the previous paragraph is far from complete. It is an edited version of what just one person experienced. Multiply these by a thousand, a million, and one is overwhelmed with the sheer bulk of information that could be captured.


On September 11 my e-mail became full of accounts, messages, and references to web sites where one could get more information about such topics as the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, Afghanistan, and bin Laden. On October 11 a Google search of "September 11" yielded 4,920,000 hits. In the midst of the loss of lives there was an extraordinary outpouring of creation in the form of informational databases, websites of websites, and just plain text on what had happened.

There was so much digital information, in fact, that Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, immediately began capturing information on the Internet, trying to create a snapshot of what was happening. "The researchers used special software to make copies of attack-related Web sites, storing thousands of pages off-line, including many that were changing so fast they would not be viewable by future generations unless someone grabbed them right away." [2] The result of this information capture was a site dedicated specifically to the September 11 events. [3]

Thus along with the thousands of newspaper and journal articles, film clips, and sound bites that were created and will remain available to historians, archivists, and researchers, there is also the digital record of the day, captured by the Internet Archive. For the information specialist, the daunting task in all this informational richness is finding a way to organize, catalog, and then access the data that exist so that some kind of coherent interpretation might be made in the future.

Beyond that single day there are also the web sites that have emerged to deal with current events, education, compassion, and remembrance. For example, the University at Albany created "After September 11: Updates and Campus Safety." [4] This one homepage provides a wealth of information about events on campus, ways to become involved, where to go for more information, and where to sign up to provide information to others. One must imagine that many if not all campuses across the United States as well as other parts of the world have created such sites. How can anyone possibly grasp, organize, or even briefly scan this wealth?

There is still much creation to come.

A Different Loss

In the midst of the creation of documents and web sites about September 11, one cannot forget the informational loss that also occurred on that day. The World Trade Center and Pentagon offices were full of documents created in the day-to-day business of the military, the private sector, and not-for-profit organizations. Every office had a records manager whose job it was to collect, record, catalog, preserve, and make accessible the items that documented the business of that organization. Managers and records were lost. Agencies near the WTC were also full of documents that suffered from smoke and dust damage. Two months later there is still no clear accounting of how much was lost or what must be done to reclaim that loss.

More Creation

The extraordinary creative effort that follows September 11 has gone into, among other venues, the creation of web sites to deal with preservation, disaster recovery, and technical assistance to agencies suffering informational losses. The New York State Historical Records Advisory Board has been exemplary in these efforts, creating web sites for preserving the future.

In particular, it is worth noting the following sites about the September 11 events:

  • Documenting the Tragedy specifically deals with preserving records about September 11. [5]
  •   Technical Assistance puts organizations in touch with services for disaster recovery. This is a seven-page list of web sites and organizations that will help in recovery for archives, manuscripts, special collections, paper records, electronic records, business and operational records, photographs, maps, plans, objects, artifacts, and library materials. [6]
  •   World Trade Center Disaster Recovery is a short list of sites that list affected organizations, technical and financial help, and a reporting system for those affected or those who would like to help with recovery of documents and artifacts. [7]
  • Finally, Status of Repositories in the Affected Area, alphabetically lists "repositories located below 14th Street in Manhattan." This 16-page document (version from 10/10/01) lists agency, address, phone, e-mail, contact, and the disaster status of the organization, including status of collections, facilities, and staff. [8]

This list is not meant to be all-inclusive in any way, but serves as an example of the kind of materials that were created in order to help inform individuals about and preserve the collections that were damaged in the World Trade Center attack. These sites are specific to New York City, and do not include specific information about the Pentagon.

Beyond the web sites containing lists of web sites, there were other acts of creation in the midst of the September 11 disaster.

  • The New York State Forum for Information Resource Management, Webmasters Guild interested group presented a disaster recover session on November 2. The key issues addressed included: How will government agencies mitigate risks of business process downtime? and What tools, technologies and processes will agencies employ to protect critical applications and business processes? [9]
  • The entire November 2001 issue of the New York State Forum's "Open Forum," was devoted to a single article, "Disaster Preparedness: An Interview with Gartner," focusing on internet overload the day of the disaster, jump starting recovery programs, planning for disaster, and protecting information.
  • ·The Center for Technology in Government (Albany, NY) suggested that organizations needed to think carefully about security as well as disaster recovery, referring individuals to its 1996 seminar and web materials on Internet Security. [10]

Again, this is a very small sample of an extremely large effort of creation to help individuals deal with disaster. In particular, these last endeavors dealt not so much with the past, recovering from September 11, but with how to react and prepare for future disasters. These listings bring us round robin to what we have lost–a sense of security about our lives and environs, and what we can create–networks of individuals, organizations, and policies to help us feel somewhat in control of the world around us.

In a University at Albany publication, the dean and director of libraries, Meredith A. Butler, looked to the job of libraries in this time of crisis. Her words can be directed not just to librarians, but to scholars around the world.

Our job is to provide [students] with a repository of wisdom to assist them in their intellectual achievements and offer them a chance to explore new ways of looking at the world and understanding its complexity. Perhaps these citizens can create a world in which acts of terrorism are simply unthinkable. [11]

This journal is in the unique position of dealing with both history and technology–people and computers. The events of September 11 give us materials to ponder and interpret for years to come. They also give us lessons that will change our lives and the way that we live them. These acts of creation amidst a sea of loss give us benchmarks, standards to measure and judge, that we might wish we did not have, but that will force us to look at and react to the world and its complexity in entirely new ways.

1. "Benchmark," American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed., 2000.

2. Leslie Walker. Web-page collections preserves the online response to horror. Washington Post, Thursday, September 27, 2001; p. E01.

3. See

4. See







11. Meredith A. Butler. Fall 2001. Library Update. University at Albany, University Libraries, p. 1.