A brown fedora rests abandoned in ground zero dust: owner’s fate, unknown. In images shot from space, a plume of smoke rises miles above the World Trade Center. Two workers cling to a scaffold that dangles from an office building beneath the inferno. A handheld video camera, pointing at a north tower in flames, shakily veers to show the second hijacked jet striking the other tower.
Those images, captured largely by amateurs, are moments from more than 500 hours of videos and films, the largest collection of raw visual data from what historians say is the best-documented catastrophe in history. About 1,700 clips from the collection have attracted more than a million hits in the three months since they were put on Google Video.
The 7,000-gigabyte archive was assembled by Steven Rosenbaum, a Manhattan-based documentary producer. In the days after the terrorist attacks, he put up posters and fliers and placed an ad in The Village Voice urgently requesting images that captured the attack, its aftermath and the mood of the city.
Now his collection is the largest asset of his dormant television production company, CameraPlanet, and Mr. Rosenbaum is working out an agreement with the Bank of America, the company’s primary lender. He wants to structure a deal with a donor, buyer or partner that would keep the collection from being sold piecemeal, would repay the company’s debt of more than $500,000 and would make the videos available to researchers, filmmakers and the public.
As the fifth anniversary of the attack approaches, Mr. Rosenbaum is hardly alone among 9/11 collectors in struggling with financing, and with the need to find a permanent home for a repository and provide greater access to it.
Beyond at least 260 major private and institutional collections, an estimated 100,000 people have squirreled away 9/11 materials. They range from video and document collections to flags, badges, roadside shrines, electronic archives of trade center blogs and even compilations of conspiracy theory materials.
As yet, the logical repository for ground zero materials, the planned World Trade Center memorial and museum, has no place to store them, and it faces a budgetary and leadership crisis as well.
Beyond that, seeming to profit from 9/11 is still taboo. David N. Redden, a vice chairman of Sotheby’s in Manhattan, said his auction house has not been offered Sept. 11 collections to sell.
“Things from that day should be unsalable,” he said, “and anything that is ghoulish is beyond the pale.”
Among all the archives, Mr. Rosenbaum’s video collection may be unique in that it can be sampled by anyone with access to the Web, at www.911archive.net/Google.
It is “an extraordinary compilation of perspectives, a very important archive to keep together,” said Jan Seidler Ramirez, chief curator of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation.
Mr. Rosenbaum, 42, said that two appraisers had valued his archive in excess of $1 million.
“This collection is about five years of my life,” Mr. Rosenbaum said. “It’s not about money. We don’t have the resources to make it available to researchers and other documentarians, and we are very selective in giving approval to use our video.”
Mr. Rosenbaum’s Google video clips are low-resolution teasers of longer sequences, and some have been encoded so that they cannot be downloaded, allowing Mr. Rosenbaum alone to approve uses of the full high-resolution images.
Seventy-six people contributed to the collection, which is owned by Mr. Rosenbaum and his business partner and wife, Pamela Yoder.
The archive’s value is greatly enhanced, they say, by videotaped interviews with those who provided their pictures, “because in 40 years everyone who shot this video will be gone, and we think the circumstances are as important as the videos,” Ms. Yoder said.
A few of the clips have been used in documentaries, including a film produced and directed by Mr. Rosenbaum, “Seven Days in September.” In a review in 2002, A. O. Scott of The New York Times called it “an almost unbearably powerful documentary.”
When another director of documentaries, Ric Burns, made a film about the trade center, he was also allowed to use some of Mr. Rosenbaum’s images.
Archives like this, Mr. Burns said, are tremendous assets.
“What is lying in wait for historians of the future is daunting,” he said. “How do you keep the videotapes and the digital computer archives of 300 million Americans, preserve them, sort them and evaluate them? What are the criteria? There aren’t enough real-time years to sort it all.”
Mr. Rosenbaum’s collection may one day be used by historians as a template for coping with huge sets of historical data.
“We’d like to work with the collection to develop the kind of software that can be useful to search historical data,” said Orville Vernon Burton, a professor of history and sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who is director of the Center for Computing in Humanities, Arts and Social Science there.
In the past, historians often had to sift through meager records. “Scholars of the future will have an overwhelming task coping with e-mails, videos, newscasts, radio broadcasts and written accounts generated by historically important events like 9/11,” Dr. Burton said.
If financing can be found, Dr. Burton and scientists at Urbana-Champaign, a leading supercomputing center, would like to work with Mr. Rosenbaum’s collection “to store it, preserve it and develop the kind of software that can be useful to search this data,” he said, “to develop tools that can take e-mails, newscasts and videos, index them and search them by topic and time, so they can be evaluated.”
Mr. Rosenbaum hopes to make this possible by turning the collection over to an advisory board that would determine access, but that plan hinges on a deal with the bank, which said it does not comment on its customers.
Dozens of others, like Louis E. V. Nevaer, are also seeking homes for their collections. He is curator of an archive that contains 5,200 missing-persons fliers and related artifacts from the days after the attack in Lower Manhattan. An exhibition derived from it, “Missing: Last Seen at the World Trade Center,” traveled for 18 months to 17 American cities, and to Mexico City and Milan.
“These fliers were going to be discarded as litter, and if we didn’t save them, then they’d be lost,” Dr. Nevaer said.
The flier collection has been catalogued and stored in climate-controlled warehouses in New York and Miami, “and we’re negotiating with several museums,” he said.
“We won’t permit it to go to any institution that charges admission,” Dr. Nevaer said. That rules out the 9/11 museum planned for ground zero.
Other spontaneous collections are housed by institutions and government agencies.
For example, more than 100 artifacts are located in the Jersey City police headquarters of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
The items were donated in an outpouring of sympathy for families of the 37 Port Authority officers who died. They include handmade quilts, needlepoint messages, signed flags flown in Afghanistan in honor of the lost, cards from schoolchildren and a framed painting of Sirius, the bomb-sniffing golden Labrador retriever who died in the attack.
“These are all treasured possessions, and we’d like to keep them together,” said Barbara Mahon, a retired detective who helps oversee the collection. “It may take some time, but we’re going to find the right place for them.”
The exact number of such collections is unknown, but “there must be more than 100,000 people of one sort or another who have these materials,” said Althea Bernheim, a professional archivist who has been developing a database of major ones for the Archivists Roundtable of Metropolitan New York, which has resources for collectors at www.nycarchivists.org/surveyintro.html.
So far, the Roundtable has identified more than 260 major repositories in a program financed by New York State’s Documentary Heritage Program. Some archives have thousands of artifacts and documents.
Others are limited to just a few souvenirs of the trade center that were snatched — or rescued — from chaos. One collector “got a big letter T from one of the trade center towers,” Ms. Bernheim said.
“There are individuals everywhere who have a few things and are wondering, ‘Where do I store it and how do I preserve it?’ ” she said. “But with the fifth anniversary approaching, the danger is that a lot of materials will be discarded. People need their office space back.”
Dr. Ramirez, the memorial foundation’s curator, agreed that the anniversary — “a natural demarcation point” — is creating a sense of greater urgency.
The foundation has received more than 50 offers of donations of major collections and has a responsibility to act as a clearinghouse, she said.
“Some are looking to organize their collections, and some are ready to move on and want to deposit their collections,” she said. “Many may be financially unable to support them anymore.”
But the ground zero museum has yet to be built, costs are far greater than expected, fund-raising has lagged and the president of the memorial foundation, Gretchen Dykstra, resigned on Friday.
“We have to think carefully about the nature of the materials we take responsibility for — the cost of housing, maintaining and cataloguing them,” Dr. Ramirez said.
She added that she was working to join with other institutions — including the New-York Historical Society, the Museum of the City of New York and the New York State Museum in Albany — in a consortium to protect trade center materials in existing repositories.
Somebody has to protect them, said Mr. Rosenbaum, the keeper of the video archive, because it could take years “before we can comprehend the importance of all these collections.”
He added: “They contain things that we don’t know, right now, that we need to know. We don’t know why these things need to be preserved. But we know they need to be.”
In future, as collectors lose interest or die off, more and more ground zero materials are expected to become available — or to be put into the trash.
Ms. Bernheim said she is worried that valuable materials may be discarded. But she said: “Though only a few years ago it would have been blasphemy to say so, not everything needs to be saved. The question is, who gets to decide?”