Archiving America: Documentary Filmmaker Ken Burns on Lifelong Learning at Libraries

By Burns, Ken | American Libraries, June-July 2007 | Go to article overview

Archiving America: Documentary Filmmaker Ken Burns on Lifelong Learning at Libraries


Burns, Ken, American Libraries


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."

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If you had asked me in 9th 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.

Libraries and liberty

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.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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 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-19th-century photographs no one ever smiled. …

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