Archiving September 11By Mark Berkey-Gerard
When Martin Scorsese wanted to recreate the city's 19th century tenements, bordellos, and saloons for his upcoming movie "The Gangs of New York," he sent his film producers to visit the archives of a neighborhood called Five Points. The collection contained over 850,000 items from the infamous slum -- dishes, thimbles, combs, medicine bottles, and children's toys -- that documented the history of working-class life in lower Manhattan.
A little over a year after the visit, the entire collection, except for 18 items that were on loan, was destroyed when debris smashed into the World Trade Center 6 building.
A few weeks after September 11, archaeologists sent a team of people into the partially collapsed building to try to recover the archives, but there was nothing to retrieve. Like nearly everything in the World Trade Center buildings, the historic items were buried in rubble and lost forever.
"There were hundreds of offices in the World Trade Center that lost all of their records and documents," said Kathleen Roe of the New York State Archives in Albany. "Some of those were originals items that had no duplicate and can not be replaced."
Photographer Jacques Lowe, who intimately documented the life of President John F. Kennedy and his family, lost the negatives to 40,000 photographs that he had stored in a bank vault in the Trade Center. Helen Keller Worldwide, a nonprofit agency dedicated to eradicating preventable blindness, lost letters gathered during Keller's travels between 1930-1950 as well as several first editions of her works. And thirty years of photographs and musical scores from Broadway and Off-Broadway plays -- items like photos of the original cast of "A Chorus Line" and "Miss Saigon" -- were destroyed.
In the weeks after September 11, a coalition of New York historians and archivists met to assess the damage to the dozens of archival collections in lower Manhattan. To their surprise they found that although nearly everything in the World Trade Center was lost, many collections in the surrounding area -- like the American Express records, Trinity Church, the Federal Reserve, and the Stock Exchange -- were not damaged.
"We are rarely in the midst of the event we are trying to document and archive," said Roe. "The result is that we have an almost incomprehensible amount of information with no way to organize or sort it out."
Some groups have tried to provide centralized places for information.
The Library of Congress commissioned the September 11 archive project, an online database of over 3,000 web sites. An organization called Television Archives has collected video coverage from around the world. And Columbia University recently received a grant to record the oral stories of more than 300 New Yorkers.
Locally, nearly every kind of group or organization with a specific interest is collecting stories, mementos, and information to help understand how people were affected and responded.
The New York Fire Museum is collecting images and stories about the rescue efforts and the memorials to those lost. The South Street Seaport Museum is gathering information about how boat operators responded. And the New York Center for Urban Folklore Culture is searching for photographs of the individual shrines that sprung up around the city. And the list goes on.
There are debates about how all of the information should be organized, whether too much money is going to online projects, which institutions or government agencies should oversee the projects, and how to keep the process from being overwhelmed with bureaucracy.
"Some people have a grand vision of one place where someone can find any piece of information, but the best solution may be getting different institutions to cooperate with each other," said Richard Wandel of the Archivists Round Table of New York.
Historians also fear there some stories may be overlooked or lost. They are eager to record the accounts of mental health workers, the stories of the Arab community in New York City, and anything that can help the city learn to respond to catastrophes. To help in the effort, the New York State Archivists are awarding grants of up to $50,000 and offering professional archival assistance to groups.
"We need to continually look for what stories need to be told, how best to tell them, and which stories are being overlooked," said Roe.