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Researchers build Web archive of attacks

Web archivists are working to preserve Web sites, pages and links related to last week's catastrophic terrorist assaults that destroyed New York's World Trade Center.

Web archivists are working to preserve Web sites, pages and links related to last week's catastrophic terrorist assaults that destroyed the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

"The Web is ephemeral; it disappears before our eyes," said Steven Schneider, associate professor of political science at the SUNY Institute of Technology at Utica/Rome, N.Y., and director of WebArchivist.org. "But it's important for historical record. It's increasingly a part of the fabric of society, and if we don't capture it, we lose it."

WebArchivist.org is working with the Library of Congress and the Internet Archive on the project. Other efforts are under way to create a lasting electronic record of the events of Sept. 11. The nonprofit Poynter Institute for Media Studies, of St. Petersburg, Fla., is compiling a collection of electronic newspaper editions of last week's attacks in PDF format, which reproduces pages as they appear in print.

The Poynter Institute, the Library of Congress, the Internet Archive and others have previously created archives for events such as the 2000 presidential elections.

To aid in the collection of sites and personal pages related to the attacks, WebArchivist.org has built a tool that allows Web surfers to automatically send a Web address to its servers, which then makes a copy of the site. WebArchivist.org plans to attach definitions, or "metadata," to each Web page to make it simpler to search on topics. For example, a researcher could look for all the businesses that posted information on the attacks on their home pages during the week of Sept. 11.

"A lot of people are asking, 'What is the impact of the Web following this event?' and we want to answer that question by figuring out what was on the Web," Schneider said. "We call it a Websphere--a collection of pages, sites and links emerging during a significant event. And this looks to me like a very large Websphere, spilling into different genres."

For example, Schneider has found references to the terrorist attacks on adult-related sites and discovered a site called Getbinladen.com that predated the attacks. The site allows people to subscribe to a long-distance program and donate 5 percent of their calls to a fund to track down Osama bin Laden, the Islamic militant whom the United States considers its prime suspect in the attacks.

Schneider also noted a surprising absence of information on the attacks on certain pages, including the Christian Coalition Web page. WebArchivist.org has been compiling Web sites for the last four days and has already received hundreds of contributions from Web volunteers.