Archiving America: Ken Burns

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“We’re so excited to be here at ALA and share with our peeps the most important work we’ve done,” said Ken Burns when I finally made my way into his busy schedule at the American Library Association’s Annual Conference in Washington in 2007. It had been especially important to me that Burns speak that year because his latest documentary film, The War, was about to be released and we could preview it at the conference. His reputation as America’s finest documentary filmmaker had already been established with films such as Baseball, Jazz, and Unforgivable Blackness, which had aired on public television. It was, however, the research, as opposed to the final product, that intrigued me. Burns would surely have much to say about the reading and research inthe libraries and archives that preceded the production of these great films.

In making arrangements for his appearance, I was in frequent touch with Burns mostly through his staff, and he agreed to write an original article for American Libraries delineating how he did his research. I didn’t know what to expect, but he met his deadline and we published the piece in the June-July issue, just in time for the conference. Here is what he wrote:.

“I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in making films. From my earliest days, my father gave me a fairly strict curfew, but he’d always forgive it if there was a movie on TV late at night or something playing at the Cinema Guild. My interest in history is a little bit more difficult to pinpoint.

“Though I had always done well in history throughout school, it wasn’t until many, many years later—after I had established my career—that I was stopped by an old junior high school classmate who remembered me from history class and said, ‘I always looked at you and knew that’s what you wanted to do.’

“If you had asked me in ninth grade what I wanted to do, I would have said a writer or a filmmaker. History was the farthest thing from my imagination. But it turned out my classmate was right.

“Today, we’re well aware of how important nutrition is. I think we know that if we eat well, if we exercise, we help stave off the inevitable decay that takes place. I think we also understand that exercising the mind, which is constantly evolving, is probably the healthiest of all of the things we can do for ourselves. The key to that is for people to understand that we’re not just coasting here. We almost have an obligation to keep learning.

“Thomas Jefferson said in his famous second sentence of the Declaration of Independence that we were entitled to ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,’ and for most people that means a pursuit of material goods. I know that Jefferson, by saying capital-H ‘Happiness,’ meant a kind of lifelong learning, an improving of oneself in the marketplace of ideas, and that any citizen first given life and liberty was then obligated to continue to improve oneself, to work on oneself, for the rest of one’s life. It was the pursuit of happiness—not something that we’d actually achieve—and so it suggests a lifelong quest for self-improvement, which, to my mind, is not just physical, but also mental and emotional.

“I don’t think that there has been a film that I’ve done that hasn’t been influenced by libraries and archives, and therefore my whole life is essentially organized and categorized by what they make available. That’s what I do for a living: I’m kind of an emotional archaeologist. For instance, with The War we wanted to take an entirely anecdotal, bottom-up look at the Second World War, and to do that, we picked four geographically distributed towns, got to know those towns, accepted whatever and whomever came up to us, and then proceeded to research, film, and interview before intertwining the various stories against the greatest cataclysm in human history.

“So, as I go to these places, I’m not just trying to unearth the dry dates and facts and events of the past—things that have so little meaning to us now in our distracting, glittering present—but I’m interested in using the emotional resonances of that past, whether it’s through a photograph, or a diary excerpt, or just a startling fact. While making the Civil War series, I found out that the little town of Winchester, Virginia, changed hands 72 times, and that fact has never left me for its startling power to remind us that, at a time not that long ago, parts of the United States were not only a battleground, but suffered that much of a back-and-forth struggle.

“Another example from The Civil War: I was at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, and I asked them if they had a box of ‘seconds’—materials that hadn’t been properly cataloged. The curator said yes, and he brought out a box literally filled with dozens of mostly duplicates of what I’d already seen.

“But I spent about an hour searching, and at the bottom, stuck under a flap, was a photograph. It showed Robert E. Lee with a kind of winsome, Mona Lisa–like smile—and you must understand that in mid-nineteenth-century photographs no one ever smiled. I looked up and said, ‘I’ve never seen this photograph before,’ and the curator said, ‘Neither have I.’ At that moment, you know you’re in archival heaven, and you thank God for libraries and historical societies every day of your life.

“We used to have a joke that there were two kinds of archivists: one who kept her collection in apple-pie order and was thrilled to share it with the rest of the world, and the other who kept his collection in apple-pie order and would prefer it never to be touched. I believe, obviously, that the risk of a slight bit of attrition—the dog-eared corners; the minor rips; the, I’m sure, unfortunate disappearances of some items—is far outweighed by the value of allowing complete and total access by the public to materials.

“I am mindful that nonprofit organizations—particularly archives and libraries—sometimes have to look for new streams of revenue, but sometimes these actions impede public access. On my first film, people were just so thrilled that anyone was interested in their collection that they would let us have access to the use of a particular photograph for free. That has changed almost across the board. There are now significant expenses connected with this process, and I think that it limits filmmaking.

“The 2006 agreement between the Smithsonian and the Showtime network to create programming, and thereby limit other producers’ use of the Smithsonian’s collection, represents an even further departure. These are federal archives—that means they belong to the people. And so, with regard to access, they need to be completely open, and the Smithsonian deal was allowing an outside company that had a vested interest in its own shows to be the gatekeeper for anyone else interested in producing television programs.

“I thought it was a horrific precedent and that we needed to vocally object to it. I work in public television, and the notion that I could be rejected from access to the Smithsonian collection, either out of jealousy of my project or because it competed with Showtime’s own projects, is abhorrent to me. It would be terrible anyplace, but particularly somewhere owned by the people of the United States; that’s something we have to correct.

“When I was making a film back in the early 1980s on the Statue of Liberty and its history and symbolism, I had the great good fortune to meet and interview Vartan Gregorian, who was then the president of New York Public Library in Manhattan. After this extremely fascinating interview with an immigrant—Vartan is from Tabriz, Iran—he said ‘Come on’ and took me on a long and fascinating tour of the literally miles and miles of NYPL stacks. I chased this roly-poly man down one corridor after another.

“Then he stopped, suddenly, in the middle of all of it, and he looked at me with this beaming smile on his face, like a child in a candy shop, and he said ‘this’—gesturing at his library from its guts—‘this,’ he said, ‘is the DNA of our civilization.’

“I have never forgotten that. The thing that I appreciate, the thing that I like to remind people of, the thing that we need to remember as a republic, is that these records are the DNA of who we are. And libraries and archives are where we stow and encode what future generations will interpret about us. I can’t imagine a better pursuit, I can’t imagine a better place to spend a day, I can’t imagine being able to thank those resources enough.”

Produced and directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, The War is a seven-part, 14-hour documentary series that examines World War II by focusing on the citizens of four representative American towns—Waterbury, Connecticut; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; and Luverne, Minnesota. PBS and the Library of Congress Veterans History Project—which collects and archives the stories of American veterans—jointly sponsored an educational outreach project designed around the series, with the hope that the broadcast would encourage veterans to share their own stories. The War aired in September 2007 on PBS.

Ken Burns latest documentary, The Dust Bowl, premieres November 18 and 19, 2012, on PBS.

Brooklyn Bridge (1981)

The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God (1984)

The Statue of Liberty (1985)

Huey Long (1985)

The Congress (1988)

Thomas Hart Benton (1988)

The Civil War (1990)

Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio (1991)

Baseball (1994), updated with the 10th Inning (2010)

Thomas Jefferson (1997)

Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997)

Frank Lloyd Wright (1998)

Not For Ourselves Alone: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1999)

Jazz (2001) 

Mark Twain (2001)

Horatio's Drive: America's First Road Trip (2003)

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2005)

The War (2007)

The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009)

Prohibition, with Lynn Novack (2011)

LEONARD KNIFFEL is publisher of the @ your library website at the American Library Association. He was on the editorial staff of American Libraries from 1988 to January 2011, the last 14 years as editor in chief. This article is adapted from his book Reading with the Stars: A Celebration of Books and Libraries, copublished in April by ALA Editions and Skyhorse Publishing.