The day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress initiated the September 11, 2001, Documentary Project.
This project is modeled on a similar initiative, conducted 60 years earlier, when folklorist Alan Lomax was serving as “assistant in charge” of the Archive of American Folk Song. On December 8, 1941, Lomax sent a telegram urging folklorists around the United States to collect and record man-on-the-street reactions to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent declaration of war by the United States. These field recordings were sent to the Library of Congress and used in a series of radio programs that were distributed to schools and radio stations around the country. This unique documentary collection is still housed at the American Folklife Center and is featured in the American Memory collection, After the Day of Infamy: "Man-on-the-Street" Interviews Following the Attack on Pearl Harbor.
On September 12, 2001, the American Folklife Center e-mailed a nationwide “Call for Participation” to folklorists to conduct interviews that would collect and preserve the sentiments of a nation concerning the September 11 terrorist attacks. Within a week, submissions began to arrive at the Library of Congress. However, mail service to the Library was abruptly interrupted as a result of another act of terrorism—a package containing anthrax, a deadly chemical inhalant in the form of white powder, was delivered to the Hart Senate Office Building, in Washington, D.C. From October 2001 to May 2002 items sent in response to the September 11, 2001, Documentary Project through the U.S. Postal Service were routed offsite and irradiated in order to rid them of possible anthrax contamination. When regular mail delivery to the Library resumed and materials finally began to arrive at the American Folklife Center, there were a small number of items that had been severely damaged by the irradiation process, but still became part of the collection.
The complete collection, available at the American Folklife Center Reading Room, comprises more than 400 sound and video recordings that contain about 800 interviews. The collection also includes 421 graphic materials (photographs and drawings), as well as news clippings, written narratives, e-mails, and artifacts.
The voices of men and women from many cultural, occupational, and ethnic backgrounds are represented. Some of the interviews are from people who were in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon during the attacks. The majority of the interviews, however, are from other parts of the country—from those who first heard the news on television or radio, and from teachers, friends, family, and other members of their communities. In all, materials were received from 27 states and a U.S. military base in Naples, Italy.
In 2002 the September 11, 2001, Documentary Project was featured in an exhibition in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress titled Witness and Response: September 11 Acquisitions at the Library of Congress.