Friday, September 9, 2011

September 11: electronic records, service, and remembrance

The New York State Archives has just published Ground Zero from the Air, an online exhibit that features aerial photographs, thermal images, and flyover simulations of the World Trade Center site created in September and October 2001. These records were created by EarthData, a mapping firm working under contract to the New York State Office for Technology, which ultimately transferred them to the State Archives for long-term preservation.

I helped to put this exhibit together, and I have to say that the experience was, in some respects, profoundly rewarding. The records document an event of profound significance and are visually compelling (the level of detail in the aerial photographs is nothing short of astounding). I got to work closely with several colleagues whose work typically doesn't overlap with mine, and I am once again in awe of their talent and dedication.

Moreover, all of these records were born digital, and this is the first time that electronic records have been featured in one of our online exhibits -- and incorporated into the Digital Collections section of our Web site. Electronic records can be every bit as haunting, fascinating, and visually arresting as paper records, and it's good to remind people -- archivists and researchers alike -- of this fact every now and then.

At the same time, the experience of putting together this exhibit was extremely difficult. Anyone who spends any time with these records will instantly be transported back to the days immediately following September 11. Magnify one of the aerial photographs of the World Trade Center site, and you'll understand instantly why the first responders who worked there always referred to it as "the pile." In some of the September 2001 images, you can see bucket brigades of emergency personnel removing debris by hand. In some of the October 2001 images, you can see tractor trailers carrying debris away from the site.

As glad as I am that these records exist and are in our holdings, sometimes I had to get up and walk away from them for a while. I wish with all my heart that the circumstances that led to the creation of these records had never come to pass, and I don't think that this wish will ever fade away.

There is, of course, nothing any of us can do to change what happened on September 11, 2001. However, we do have the power to determine how we respond to it. This morning, National Public Radio aired a quietly and profoundly moving story about Father Mychal Judge, the Fire Department of New York chaplain who died at the World Trade Center site. The story featured a substantial excerpt from the homily that Father Michael Duffy delivered at Father Judge's funeral, and I couldn't help but think that we should all strive to live as Father Judge did:
And he would say to me once in a while, “Michael Duffy,” he always called me by my full name, “Michael Duffy, you know what I need?” And I would get excited because it was hard to buy him a present or anything. I said, “No, what?” “You know what I really need?” “No, what Mike?” “Absolutely nothing. [MURMURING] I don’t need a thing in the world. I am the happiest man on the face of the earth.” And then he would go on for ten minutes, telling me how blessed he felt. “I have beautiful sisters. I have nieces and nephews. I have my health. I’m a Franciscan priest. I love my work. I love my ministry.” And he would go on, and he would always conclude it by looking up to heaven and saying, “Why am I so blessed? I don’t deserve it. Why am I so blessed?” But that’s how he felt all his life.
Father Judge knew that service, not self-aggrandizement, is the way to fulfillment and that meaningful work is a gift. The families of many of the men and women who were killed on September 11, 2001 also know these things: in 2002, they began pressing to have September 11 designated a National Day of Service and Remembrance focused on honoring the dead, helping the living, and recapturing the spirit of unity, generosity, and compassion that prevailed in the weeks following the attacks.

If you have a few hours to devote to community service on Sunday, can help you find an organization that could use a helping hand. If you live in the Northeast -- which has just suffered yet another round of catastrophic floods -- your help is particularly needed; if you do a Google search for "Hurricane Irene volunteer opportunities [your state]" you'll find ample opportunities. Of course, there are countless community organizations that can use your help not only on Sunday but also throughout the year; September 11 should be merely one day in a lifetime of service and purposeful work.

I'm going to spend Sunday morning sorting donations at an area food bank, and as I shift the canned goods, bottled water, and toiletries around, I'm going to reflect upon my good fortune: I have a home, my friends and family are safe, and I have work that gives me purpose and direction -- in large part because the archival profession is, on every conceivable level, a service-oriented profession.

I'm also going to think about the most important passage in Father Michael Kelly's funeral homily for Father Mychal Judge:
And so, this morning … we come to bury Mike Judge’s body but not his spirit. We come to bury his mind but not his dreams. We come to bury his voice but not his message. We come to bury his hands but not his good works. We come to bury his heart but not his love. Never his love.

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