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Ask the Recommending Officer: The September 11, 2001 Web Archive

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The following is a guest post by Abbie Grotke, Web Archiving Team Lead.

The second in my series of “ask the Recommending Officer” posts features a conversation with Cassy Ammen, who shares her experience in helping to build the September 11 Web Archive.

Who are you, and what’s your job at the Library of Congress?

Cassy Ammen, Reference Specialist in the Main Reading Room, Humanities and Social Sciences Division.

What is the September 11, 2001 Web Archive?'s World Trade Center Survivor Database, archived September 14, 2001.

The archive preserves the web expressions of individuals, groups, the press and other institutions in the aftermath of the attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. Content was archived between September 11 and December 1, 2001. There are over 2,200 sites that have been cataloged and are available by browsing a drill search interface, and an estimated 30,000 sites in the archive that have been archived but not cataloged. The archive was expanded in 2002 to include sites marking the one-year anniversary of the attacks.

How did the archive come about?

In the early days of the Library’s web archiving program, I was a member of the MINERVA team formed in 2000 to study various policy and selection issues related to web archiving. We were in the midst of working with (University of Washington/SUNY Institute of Technology) and the Internet Archive, planning a 2002 election archive, when the terrorist attacks on September 11 happened. When we returned to work on Wednesday, I received a call from Diane Kresh, then Director of Public Services Collections, with instructions to start archiving immediately. “Whatever it takes, whatever it costs, do it,” she said. I immediately placed a call to our partners at the Internet Archive to initiate an archive, and also contacted the staff at to seek their collaboration on this collection, since we were already working together.

How were sites selected?

Since we were evacuated on September 11, it was fortunate that the Internet Archive began collecting that afternoon, soon after the attacks.  I put out a call to the Library’s 300+ Recommending Officers for them to look for sites in their subject areas. National Digital Library staff volunteered to help find URLs. And we asked the public to help; a form was put on for people to submit nominations to the archive.

At LC, we focused on difficult to find sites that spontaneously appeared as immediate reactions to the events – sites that

Index card used by Ammen to record ideas for the archive.

were not easily found by search engines (too new to be indexed) but that were being share in emails, linked from other sites, or in news articles at that time. My own approach was to sit down every night with a stack of index cards and scour the newspaper for ideas. I would jot down notes about specific organizations mentioned, or categories that might have a web presence. I’d bring these cards back to the office and my colleagues would take my notes and start looking for websites.

This was not an easy task for any of us. The imagery on some of the sites was often difficult to look at, and some staff had concerns about accessing certain types of content. Even though very difficult, we remained focused because we knew the importance of documenting what was happening on the web, realizing the potential fleeting nature of the types of content being posted immediately after the events. We had to act quickly. As of September 27th, 2,000 URLs had been identified and were being crawled daily.

Ten years have passed. What has been the reaction to the archive?

With support from Pew Internet and American Life Project, the collection first launched in October 2001. The Library and the project received a fair amount of press coverage at the time. The archive was named Yahoo! Internet Life “Site of the Year” in April, 2002. There has been a lot of public interest in the archive as well; not surprisingly around the first-year anniversary. Even though it’s primitive in some ways (archiving technology has improved greatly since then), it is by far our most highly-accessed web archive.

After Ammen jotted down ideas, URLS were researched and added to the archive.

What Diane Kresh wrote in an Information Bulletin article in 2002 is still true today: “Educators and researchers can learn what the official organizations of the day were thinking and reporting about the attacks on America; and they can read the unofficial, ‘online diaries’ of those who lived through the experience…Web sites provide dynamic, firsthand accounts and reflect a range of sentiments and points of view, functioning much as the morning and evening newspapers of the past.”


Minor edits for style. September 9, 2011

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