When it comes to the study of history, one of the most valuable and important tools historians use are primary sources. Secondary journal articles, essays and research papers analyzing the event after the fact are all well and good and are very useful in their own right. However, nothing is quite the same as sources directly from the event itself. Pictures of the event and of the people experiencing it, first hand accounts from people who were actually there during the event, physical items from the event, these sources tell the story of history like nothing else. The problem with primary sources, though, is that the farther you go back in history, the harder they are to come by. People die, pictures fade, documents get destroyed in a fire or somehow else get lost in time. Storing primary resources over long periods of time is an expensive and often impossible task, especially in the case of first hand accounts. The Web solves many of those issues by providing a cheap, easy to maintain and long-lasting archive primary sources of important historical events can be gathered, archived and preserved for generations to come. Let’s look at three particular digital archives to see what value they provide.

The first is the 9/11 Digital Archive. This archive is a site that gathers, organizes and preserves more than 150 000 digital items about the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. The items include emails and other communications, images, interviews, government documents and first hand accounts of people who experienced the attacks. It also provides a FAQ section containing links to a timeline of the events of the day, as well as other newspaper articles where you can find more information on the victims, the responders and more.

The second archive is the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank is the largest free and public digital archive for preserving items about Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The archive contains over 25 000 items, including images, first hand accounts, blog postings, podcasts and other primary sources on the hurricanes.

The third archive is The Occupy Archive. This archive gathers photos, documents, personal accounts and other primary resources about the various Occupy movements that occurred during 2011.

Out of the three archives, the most comprehensive, most well organized and most representative of them all is easily the 9/11 Digital Archive, both having had the most time to collect and organize its material and dealing the most significant historical event of the three archives. However, the importance of all three archives cannot be understated. All of the archives contain an unprecedented amount of primary sources on their respective subjects at many orders of magnitude greater than any other resource available. They are also open, public and free, meaning anyone can access them and submit material to them. This model means that the stories of many people who would normally be passed over by traditional media can be told and can be preserved for generations to come. News programs and government documents and reactions are also preserved, providing both sides of the experience. 100+ years from now, when historians are studying our time, they will be able to go to these digital archives and access countless numbers of primary sources, projecting them into the past and allowing them to  almost experience the events first hand through the personal and professional accounts given on these websites at a level unlike anything before it.

Just like how audio and video recording revolutionized historians’ abilities to look into the past, the Web and, specifically, these digital archives will further revolutionize that ability by providing an unprecedented scope of primary resources that can be preserved in pristine condition for generations to come.

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