Editor's Note - Capturing the Ephemeral


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When a loved one dies, we often remark that he or she lives on in our collective memory. Often, too, family and friends gather photographs, documents, and personal belongings in an effort to memorialize the personality and character-in effect, creating a historical representation of that person. It's an intimate profile of what we miss, what we're proud of, and what we want everyone else to know so they can share in and maintain the memory of the recently departed.

September's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon shocked a nation into a new understanding of their role in the world. No longer was the United States immune to threats and no longer could its citizens ignore its terrifying potential as a target. International strife, once distant and otherworldly, arrived at their doorstep.

The events solidified resolve, renewed patriotism, and inspired an incredible display of cooperation, support, volunteerism, and charity. People were utterly absorbed by events as they unfolded, and the Internet fulfilled its role as a vital conduit of information and expression. September's extraordinary occurrences will naturally go into the books and a historical perspective will be set. But the Web, as it has always done, offers a unique combination of the official and the personal. News sites like MSNBC.com and CNN.com, when they got beyond the initial bottleneck problems, kept the facts flowing, and even republished and repackaged past articles related to the Central Asian region and key suspects who had shown up in the news before. But the range doesn't end there. Performing a Google search on "world trade center attacks" or "osama bin laden," for example, produces an array of sites and commentary, from news to relief organizations to tribute and memorial sites. All of this provides a unique compilation of historical fact and personal opinion and emotion.

Most of this happens to fall under the domain of a project initiated by webArchivist.org and The Internet Archive in collaboration with the Library of Congress. They're attempting to preserve a time in history by archiving pages and sites related to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11-essentially creating an indexed and searchable archive of sites related to the attacks.

According to Kirsten Foot, assistant professor of communications at the University of Washington, and co-director of webArchivist.org, "From a scholar's perspective, unless these 'Web events' are captured, there's no way to examine them and understand the social and political implications. From a public service perspective, [the project] gives the sites a voice so people can access it as they work through [the events]." Foot added that it is very important to include the official, news-related sites with the more personal tribute and memorial sites, which allows for a more complete spectrum of content.

I wasn't going to write about or even reference September's horrible attacks in this editorial. I planned to pick up the spirit of "business must go on" and hone in on another econtent industry issue. Yet as I write this, it's still September, and I'm not willing to let go yet. Nor, I think, will I ever let go. The attacks and those who died will always live on in our hearts and minds-as well as the brave and tireless rescue teams, volunteers, and everyone else who supported the rescue and rebuilding efforts-and it's fitting that an electronic archive will join countless other manifestations of remembrances and tributes as an official snapshot of a terrible but unforgettable historical event. Steven Schneider, associate professor of political science at SUNY Institute of Technology at Utica/Rome, and Kirsten Foot's colleague as co-director of webArchivist.org, commented to CNET that "The Web is ephemeral; it disappears before our eyes." I for one am glad that we'll have an electronic archive that captures both the factual and emotional sides of this incredible event.