by Caroline J. White, Archives and Manuscript Librarian
The value of a life—of life—is at the center of much of the work of Ken Feinberg. Who decides that value, and what does that value actually mean? What does it mean for archives?
“I think that people should all get the same amount of money. So please, Mr. Feinberg, make a difference in our world and help the people on Sept. 11. Thank you very much.
P.S. I really liked you on T.V.”
—Letter from a young girl to
Kenneth R. Feinberg, ca. February 2002
These words, written by a young girl whose mother died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, come from my favorite item in the Kenneth R. Feinberg Papers. The letter is incredibly touching: honest, forthright, and sweet. It gets to the heart of the struggle for so many people whose lives were upended: how to make up for devastating loss in a way that is fair. For an archivist, it brings together a number of issues: privacy, archival agency, and access to sensitive material among them.
Ken Feinberg ’67 began the process of donating his voluminous and wide-ranging papers to the UMass Amherst Libraries approximately ten years ago—about a decade after the events of September 11, 2001, put him in the public eye as special master of the Victim Compensation Fund created by Congress for victims of the attacks or their surviving family members. Each year since then has brought additions to the collection, which now contains material related to most of the major cases Feinberg has had some role in, as well as material documenting other aspects of his life. Like many collections, it is full of stories: Feinberg’s own, of course, but also stories of the many people whose lives have intersected with his work. These stories are often just glimpses; we can only imagine the life of the young girl who wrote to him: what she had, what she lost, how she is doing now.
These slices of other people’s lives complicate Special Collections and University Archives’ (SCUA’s) collecting philosophy of “whole lives, whole communities,” meaning that we strive to document not just, say, Ken Feinberg’s major cases, but the whole man. His collection includes personal correspondence, family photographs, material from his opera group and his philanthropy. Some areas are better documented than others. For example, there is little from his early career—the years he spent as a federal prosecutor, or working for Senator Ted Kennedy—but the many boxes of clippings can fill in some of this information, and later correspondence reveals something of his relationship with Kennedy. When Feinberg put himself forward for the job of special master for the 9/11 fund, he began by appealing to Kennedy in several powerful memos sent by fax. In just this one part of the Feinberg Papers we see so many lives represented; not just Ted Kennedy, but also the young girl who lost her mother, the other survivors of people who died on 9/11, and the members of Congress who wrote to Feinberg on their behalf. People who wrote letters expressing their anguish and their anger did not consider that these letters might end up in an archive. They weren’t thinking of the fact that they were part of, or were themselves creating, historical records. And this rawness, this realness is what makes such correspondence so valuable to archives.
Archivists, although certainly not objective, usually operate at some distance from the collections in their care. This is obviously the case with older historical records. On September 11, 2001, I was living in New York. I had a different career, a different life. My office was a little more than a mile north of the World Trade Center, my home another four or so miles uptown. That day, the growing understanding of what had happened, the dark smoke in the sky downtown, the jammed phone lines, the anxiety of my assistant waiting to hear from his stepmother who worked in one of the towers, the stunning blue of the sky, the acrid smell that lingered for weeks, the sandals I wore to work that were sturdy enough to get me home on foot, the music I listened to on my favorite radio station, WFUV, the unaccustomed feeling of terror in my beloved city—these are things I will never forget. These are things I brought with me to my work as the Feinberg Archivist. I couldn’t leave them behind.
But the papers do not tell my story; it is my job to help the stories in them get told, balancing that with ensuring they are handled appropriately. Archivists talk a lot about agency, about who gets to tell their own story. One item may mean little without its context—who made it? when? why?—and in the context of the collection of which it is a part. This is certainly the case with the Feinberg Papers and their many contexts. There is a batch of notes from Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Feinberg, and they are wonderful, not because in them Justice Ginsburg discusses her judicial philosophy or her thoughts on her role as an icon (she doesn’t do either), but because they are evidence of her enjoyment of opera and her friendship with Feinberg. The Feinberg Papers are loaded with small pleasures, but they matter even more as a whole. They document a man and his many accomplishments, but they also, in aggregate, ask big questions, such as: how do we value life? To that, I would add: how do we value the lives that are represented through archival evidence? How do we preserve and provide access to their stories in a way that honors them? That respects them?
When archivists go into the profession, we don’t necessarily consider how full archives are of grief, of loss, even as we know that many people represented in them are deceased. But archives are actually full of life. What mattered enough for someone to make a record of it? For someone to preserve that record? People wrote to Ken Feinberg about the loved ones they lost, in part so he would think of them, would know them, as individuals: people who lived in the world. Because the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund was a government program, its official records are part of the United States government’s records. Other records are preserved in memorials created to honor those who lost their lives, often in the form of photographs and other artifacts provided by family members. But letters Feinberg received, many of them, are part of his story, and part of his archive. They provide evidence of life, of lives.
Ken Feinberg is incredible to work with, and he is still very active, and thus still producing records. As more material has arrived, the content and shape of the collection as a whole, though large and complex, is clearer. I have made changes to the arrangement scheme I originally conceived for it, and continued to integrate recently received material, including some from earlier this year. With users increasingly seeking digital access to collections, and with the 9/11 material being of particular interest, I began to consider selections for digitization that would not intrude on others’ privacy. But my work with the collection was most recently interrupted by another historic event whose effect has been widespread, the coronavirus pandemic. History keeps happening, even as we try to preserve the past, both recent and distant, and it demands that we be sensitive, perceptive about what to preserve, and sympathetic to the lives we seek to preserve and honor.
Around campus, events happened in connection with Feinberg’s memoir, What Is Life Worth?: The Unprecedented Effort to Compensate the Victims of 9/11.
Feinberg’s book was adapted into the Netflix film Worth, starring Michael Keaton as Feinberg and Amy Ryan as Biros, released September 3.
UMass President Marty Meehan sat down for a virtual fireside chat with Kenneth Feinberg ’67, ’02H, and his business partner, Camille Biros. Watch it here: bit.ly/firesideFeinberg.
In their discussion, Feinberg, and Biros talked about:
How reparations work and how they should be allocated;
Their perspectives on the 9/11 attacks, twenty years later;
What the process was like as Feinberg’s book was adapted for a Netflix film
Read UMass Virtual Book Club: What is Life Worth? Reading period: October 15—December 17. Info at pbc.guru/umass.
Photo: Ken Feinberg and Caroline White, 2013.
Caroline J. White, now Archives and Manuscript Librarian, Special Collections and University Archives, was appointed Kenneth R. Feinberg Archivist in 2012. Before she moved to Western Massachusetts and became an archivist, she lived in New York City and worked as an editor for Penguin Books from 1987 to 2006.
Top photo: September 11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan by Brittany Petronella