Ken Burns has done it again

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Ken Burns is an archivist’s dream.  He has been making documentary films for over thirty years, establishing a trademark style of combining images of archival materials with commentary by historians and well-written narration.  His latest effort is The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, whose fourteen hours chronicle the public and private lives of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt.  If you don’t have the patience to wait for the film credits, you can just look at the film’s website and find pictures with citations from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, the Houghton Library at Harvard, and the Library of Congress, just to name a few of the repositories whose resources were used.

On September 10th, Fresh Air aired a review by David Bianculli.  Although I agree with his analysis that this miniseries is some of Burns best work, his comment that Burns had a different challenge in this miniseries due to the existence of audio and video clips seems unfounded, considering that Burns has also done documentaries about World War II and baseball, as just two examples that also incorporate extant audio and video.  Plus, any time you can get Meryl Streep involved, there’s no need to worry about a disconnect between the narration and the recorded voices.

On September 15th, Ken Burns was interviewed on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  In the context of musing about whether the Roosevelts could be successful in today’s climate, Burns made a fascinating comment about heroism:

“Heroism is actually this negotiation — sometimes even a war — between a person’s very obvious strengths and their not so obvious weaknesses, and it is that negotiation that defines heroism.”

Burns also provides interesting analysis at the end of this interview about the differences of communication for Teddy Roosevelt, who was accustomed to telegraphs and shouting stump speeches, and for FDR, who so eloquently used the medium of radio.

On September 16th, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History presented “The Roosevelts: A Conversation with Ken Burns.”  The live webcast featured filmmaker Ken Burns along with historian Clay Jenkinson, Franklin Roosevelt biographer Geoffrey Ward, and the National Museum of American History’s chair and curator of the Division of Politics and Reform, Harry Rubenstein.  Rubinstein provides some especially interesting artifacts related to the Roosevelts.

My favorite part of these interviews is when Burns comments that he and his team continue researching all the way up until the final edits are made on the film.  As someone who loves doing research, I can appreciate this dedication.


On a different note — and in a nod to Banned Books Week — Paul Brandeis Raushenbush provided an interesting commentary this week about the temptation of banning books.   He concludes,

“our very existence as a free, enlightened society rests on the idea of the flow of information coupled with the skills to understand it.  If you needed any more proof, the first thing ISIS did in the areas that they control is ban the study of certain subjects in the schools.”



Constitution Day

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227 years ago today, the United States Constitution was signed by 39 men.  This document, along with the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, can be viewed in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives.  NARA provides on its web site both high-resolution images of the document along with transcriptions.  The displays of these documents in the Rotunda are flanked by a display that attempts to answer two questions:

  • “How did they happen?”
  • “Why are they important?”

These seem to be valuable questions that could (and should) be posed about many of the documents in archival collections.  At NARA, they display other documents from their holdings to help provide this context.

Given that there has been much discussion over the years about the original intent of these constitutional fathers, it is interesting to note that there are some mistakes in its original version.  A political scientist outlined these mistakes in a 2012 article in Prologue.

Today is also the 200th anniversary of the poem written by Francis Scott Key in response to the victory of the Americans against the British in a battle at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.  He originally titled his poem “Defence of Fort McHenry.”  It was set to the tune of a popular British song and re-christened “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  A 1931 congressional resolution, signed by President Hoover, established this song as the national anthem of the United States.  The flag that was flying at Fort McHenry is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution.

Little Free Libraries

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Sharing books has a long history —

  • dog-eared copies of favorites read more than once
  • reading lists shared with friends
  • book clubs
  • libraries.

Each of these is a means of promoting knowledge of and access to books that might otherwise not be noticed.  While most libraries have felt compelled to embrace the world of e-books for their patrons, the other examples depend on a more personal touch — the cherished volume loaned to a friend (but with a bookplate inside the front cover to guarantee its safe return!), the suggested reading lists tailored to the interests of friends, the book clubs that come together around certain themes and concerns.  Although for most people reading is a solitary activity, it is at the same time one that spawns the search for community — for people who can share our fascination about the development of a character or plumb the depths of well-constructed prose or offer different perspectives about related works.

In a culture seemingly obsessed with all things electronic, I have been fascinating to watch the development of the Little Free Libraries.  The first one was built in 2009 in Wisconsin, and since that time, thousands of these structures have been placed all over the world as a mechanism for sharing books.  There are no traditional librarians that attend these collections, so at first glance they seem impersonal.  But the Little Free Libraries web site includes the stories of the “stewards” who have created these outposts of reading and sharing, and many do so for intensely personal reasons.  There are plenty of apps and web sites that allow people to share reading lists and commentaries on books, but yet these tactile libraries are increasingly popular.

Many uphold the value of the shield of anonymity that cloaks the true identities of people on the Internet, but I can make an argument that movements like the Little Free Libraries are challenging that anonymity and attempting to establish a more personal connection.  It’s not that check-out cards are required or that patrons are necessarily identified in any way.  But the collections of books begin as reflections on the people who assemble them, and the fact that many of these libraries are located on personal property underscores the fact that these people are willing to stand by their choices.  The impact of these libraries can easily be gauged just by watching books disappear and new ones appear.  And while the patrons of these libraries may never choose to meet in person and discuss a book over a cup of tea, I still contend that they are filling a basic need for community.

I’ve chosen to write about books and community today, so let me conclude with a recommendation: Benedict Anderson wrote Imagined Communities in 1983 (and updated it several times since).  It’s a fascinating and extremely well-received look at nationalism and the factors that bring people together.

Embracing the power of big data

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I attended the North Carolina Digital Government Summit last week.  The keynote speaker was Cynthia Storer, a former CIA analyst.  She made several comments that I found especially relevant:

  • information is power
  • strategic analysis = pointing something out that no one knew they needed to know
  • transparency is key to success

A session on Digital Analytics incorporated a quote from George Dyson: “Big data is what happened when the cost of storing information became less than the cost of making the decision to throw it away.”

A session on open data and crowdsourcing explained the eight principles that are considered key principles of open government data.  Here are some interesting examples of what state and local governments are doing with big data:

  • Seattle is posting 911 call data in real time
  • Montgomery County, Maryland, posts both the recommended and approved operating budgets for its municipal programs
  • New York’s Open Data Portal includes a list of application programming interfaces (APIs) that have been developed using its open data
  • House Facts Standard was deployed by San Francisco to report government data on the health and safety of residential buildings
  • Open311 was developed as a means of reporting public requests and has been adopted in cities such as Chicago
  • NC OneMap is a public service providing comprehensive discovery and access to North Carolina’s geospatial data resources
  • Raleigh has GIS data comparing current zoning with proposed UDO zoning

This range of uses of big data is fascinating in and of itself, but more striking is that it seems these governments are embracing the ideas put forth by Cynthia Storer:

  • information is power
  • strategic analysis = pointing something out that no one knew they needed to know
  • transparency is key to success

I don’t know the backstory to any of these open data projects, but it is fascinating to watch governments being proactive about sharing information.  It will be interesting to continue watching what develops at this intersection of transparent government, big data, and public records.


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Labor Day seems like the appropriate time to consider salaries in the fields of archives and libraries.  In 2012, the Society of American Archivists (SAA) created the SNAP Roundtable — for Students and New Archives Professionals.  But concern about the number of available paid positions and the quality of life afforded by their usually poor salaries reached such a fever pitch that Jackie Dooley devoted her 2013 presidential address to the issue of nurturing new entrants into the archives field.

Applicants beware — no one should go into the archives field with an eye to striking it rich.  A 2007 report by the Library Research Service culled information from a number of sources to generate average salaries for archivists and reported that archivists typically earn substantially less than librarians with an equivalent amount of training.

Library Journal routinely reports on employment issues.  Its October 2013 article includes data on recent graduates of MLS programs and their success in finding jobs.  The results are dismal.  Admittedly, the economy has not fully recovered from the “Great Recession,” but it also appears that schools are inflating their numbers of students despite the paucity of jobs.  The 2012 class of graduates that was surveyed did better in “emerging jobs,” or what the Library Journal calls “The Emerging Databrarian.”  A 2014 article includes a detailed comparison of the pay and job satisfaction for public, academic, and school librarians.  It includes some interesting feedback about the impact of lack of recognition and poor management on overall job satisfaction.

Unfortunately, our society is not one that financially rewards the occupations that I value — but nevertheless, I still find great value in the work of archivists and librarians.  For a compelling explanation of the importance of archival work, I recommend reading the 2009 SAA presidential address by Frank Boles.  His commentary on collective memory and accountability and stewardship will touch you and inspire you every time.