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Archiving Disaster: A Comparative Study of September 11, 2001 and Hurricane Katrina


The first decade of the 21st Century in the United States witnessed two major events that have come to be understood as national disasters: September 11, 2001 and Hurricane Katrina. Numerous historical institutions quickly mobilized to collect material relating to the two events, prompting the creation of what is now referred to as "disaster archives." Such "disaster archives" turn a number of key tenets in the archival field on their head as they (1) immediately collect material instead of allowing substantial time to pass, (2) collect material that is in a destroyed state rather than in pristine condition, and (3) digitally collect thousands of anonymous online public responses to the two events instead of relying on experts and/or legitimate and verifiable sources. These new collection methods reveal the mechanisms of power involved in the construction of notions of race, sexuality, class, and national belonging through archival production.

This dissertation analyzes the birth and implementation of these new disaster archives by tracking the development of the first two instances of disaster archiving in the United States at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History's September 11th and Hurricane Katrina Collections, together with their partnered digital archives: the September 11 Digital Archive and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank. Through the investigation of each archive's acquisition files, which document the merits of collecting each acquired item, coupled with interviews with key archival staff, this dissertation creates an innovative methodology - an ethnography of archives - that analyzes the complex structures of power involved in the process of archival creation.

This analysis demonstrates the ways in which racialized thinking subtly, yet powerfully informs the collection process of these disaster archives, resulting in two very different renderings of national belonging. Principles of whiteness are employed to render the September 11th victims heroic citizens, whose deaths deserve national mourning, whereas notions of Blackness, poverty, disposability, and criminality are activated to disassociate the victims of Hurricane Katrina from US national identity, granting them only distant sympathy. Such results have powerful consequences as these archives become the source of the past for future generations.

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