Monitoring and managing a collecting project

One of the projects which came to the sustainability team was The September 11 Digital Archive. Although I (Megan) had not previously been officially involved with the project, I had been part of projects and conversations which touched on or included the site (specifically the Omeka Classic plugins for topic modeling). I also had some experience with other community collecting projects, including concerns over privacy and harmful language in relation to contributions.

Managing the Archive largely consisted of responding to email inquiries and monitoring the site for any new submissions. There were only a handful of submissions in the last few years, mostly during late August or early September as the anniversary drove traffic to the site.

One of my first courses of action was to look for any existing guidelines from the earlier project team about what contributions to approve and what to make public. Not everything which has been contributed to the Archive has been made public. Contributors could indicate that they wanted their content to remain private – visible only to approved researchers – or give permission to make it public. No item was ever make public without review. What I needed to understand was how previous reviewers had made the decision on whether or not to publish an item.

I was able to find some guidelines for past site reviewers in the working documents for the project on an older version of Basecamp, the software system which RRCHNM uses for internal communication and project management. However, guidelines were written at a time when there was a team so some of the recommendations were “ask a team member” or related to spoken norms within the team. I reached out to past team members for more information and also used the existing collection as models for what (not) to publish.

Thankfully, there was no obvious spam submitted via the contribution form. A few of the contributions seemed to be made without a clear idea of the scope or purpose of the archive – one simply resubmitted a photograph which was already on the site and gave the source as “Yahoo”.

Through emails sent to the contact link, we discovered that one of the pre-2015 data migrations had changed the permalinks to items in the site. Using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, I was able to determine a workaround for getting from the old links to the item in the current site. I updated the About page with this information. It was important to make the workflow public because some of the people using old links were contributors from 2001 who were trying to find their own stories.

As we approached September 2021, we started to talk about closing the collecting portal for the site. As I noted, the rate of contributions had slowed. In addition, the nature of the contributions had changed. Although some people still submitted their experiences of September 11, 2001, their accounts were for the most part memories rather than an immediate record. There are entire collections in the site which are reflections from anniversaries often considering the aftermath as much as the day itself. The site — which as of July 1, 2021, contained 98,306 items — is an archive of immediate experiences and of memory and memorialization. We decided that the twenty year mark was a reasonable point to transition from an active collecting project to an archive for study and education. The subreddit r/AskHistorians uses a rolling 20 year cutoff date to differentiate between “current events” and history.

On the public side, closing the collecting portal meant announcing the impending closure through a blog post and social channels. We set the final date as October 1, so that people who visited the site on the anniversary would still have a chance to contribute if they felt inspired to do so.

On the technical end, we wanted to ensure that there would not be any lasting effects from deactivating the plugins which enabled contributions. The site used the Omeka plugins Guest User and Contribution along with User Profiles and Record Relations. I used a local instance of Omeka with the relevant plugins to see what, if anything, changed in the metadata for contributed item metadata as I deactivated each plugin. Deactivating User Profiles and Record Relations removed the “Owner info” section from the admin item view. Deactivating all of the Contribution plugins removed the contributor’s username (if provided) from the citation on the public and admin views. In order to preserve this information after deactivating the plugins, we would need to do some work in the MySQL database to migrate information from the plugins’ tables to the items’ tables. We were not willing to attempt this migration on the live site. We have decided that the change in citation data is acceptable for the moment. It is important to note that deactivating the plugins but keeping them installed means that the data is still available in the database – to restore it to the public view, all we need to do is re-activate the plugins.

Ultimately, we received twelve new contributions during the month of September 2021 – over twice as many contributions as we received in all of 2020! In the year since we closed the portal, we have only been contacted once by someone who was interested in adding material. This person had a large number of documents and we were able to refer them to other organizations which might be interested in accessioning their collection.

The September 11 Digital Archive is among the oldest web-based community collecting projects. For these kinds of projects, there will be a natural point at which contributions are closed. The exact timing will vary based on the project, the community, and the resources available to the people maintaining the project. For this project, twenty years was a logical transition point.