Archiving a tragedy

Virginia Tech’s Center for Digital Discourse and Culture recently debuted The April 16 Archive, with some help from the prolific Center for History and New Media at George Mason,

…in order to support ongoing efforts of historians and archivists to preserve the record of this event by collecting first-hand accounts, on-scene images, blog postings, and podcasts.

It’s worth keeping an eye on this project as a model of user contributions, clustered around a contemporary and tragic event. How do we use new media to process such things? What does it enable us to capture and collect and learn?

So far the April 16 Archive is fairly bare-bones; it only accepts ‘images,’ ‘stories,’ and the vaguely termed ‘other files’. And as of now it’s impossible to search, hard to browse. There is some tagging, but the lumped-up organization makes you wish for some other ways in to the content–perhaps a map interface along the lines of the CHMN’s last tragedy-archive, the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank. A simple uploading interface provides a cut-and-paste field for Virgina Tech stories, or an upload field for files (maximum 5 MB). You can choose to just contribute to the archive, or to have your contribution appear on the website (with or without your name). Submitters are told that they retain copyrights to anything they contribute, which broadly bans use for any public purpose without the permission of the April 16 Archive and the original contributor. No CC options here.

The April 16 Archive FAQs take on the question of veracity: How do I know that the content of the April 16 Archive is factual? The answer here:

Every submission to the April 16 Archive–even those that are erroneous, misleading, or dubious–contributes in some way to the historical record. A misleading individual account, for example, could reveal certain personal and emotional aspects of the event that would otherwise be lost in a strict authentication and appraisal process.

Besides, this FAQ rather blithely continues,

…the April 16 Archive harvests metadata from every contributor–including name, email address, location, zip code, gender, age, occupation, date received–and suggests that these metadata be examined in relation to one another, in relation to the content of the submission, and in relation to other authenticated records. Sound research technique is the basis of sound scholarship.

After picking my way around the Archive for a little while, I’m struck by the number of images of Second Life memorials. I just don’t know what to think of such screen grabs. Collective therapy, sure — but an historical record of this tragedy? You tell me.

Second life mourners

2 thoughts on “Archiving a tragedy

  1. Mark, thanks for your thoughtful review of our new Archive. We just added a basic search feature, which as you noted was sorely needed. I would also like to add that we are actively archiving a large amount of CC (Creative Commons) licensed content on the site. When a given item is CC, we clearly indicate the appropriate license information, which obviously overrides any other general stipulations or restrictions listed on the site. Perhaps not the most elegant solution, but it works. And finally, I think the questions you ask about the items being collected are good ones, although only time will tell how such materials might be used. We are basically following the work of the CHNM here. In fact, the software infrastructure that runs the April 16 Archive is an adaptation of the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank application – you may even notice that some of the FAQ and about text is nearly identical. Over time our site will likely become somewhat more distinct, but the underlying philosophy and principles are quite similar.

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