Ken Burns

Ken Burns: "My entire professional life is based on libraries."

My entire professional life is based on libraries.


I haven't made a film that hasn't depended almost entirely on the generosity and willingness of librarians and archivists to share their vast collections.

Sometimes it's a small public library or a tiny historical society. Sometimes it's a big massive institution like the Library of Congress. I remember getting my first library card in Newark, Delaware and visiting the library often there, and then later on in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the two places I grew up. But now we visit, somehow, hundreds of libraries every year to look for material for our films. There has not been a project that has not used a library collection in our research.

I live in rural New Hampshire and we're not that far away from Dartmouth and its magnificent library, so we're up there quite often. But I can remember lots of times going to an archiver, a librarian and going through the photographs, and going through some of the manuscripts.

I remember working on the Civil War series and after exhausting the sort of neatly filed collection, asked if there were any duplicates or other material we might be missing, and curator brought out a box of old photographs. They were all seconds and fly specked ones that didn't seem very good, but we pulled out a few to rephotograph because of the quality of the decay of light on the photograph had made something interesting. And at the very bottom, tucked under a flap, I pulled out, and I thought I'd seen, in books and microfilm, every photograph taken that survives from the Civil War. And there was an incredible photograph of Robert E. Lee with this enigmatic  Mona Lisa smile. And I said, "I've never seen that before."

And then I heard the greatest thing I've ever heard from a librarian, besides "Please come in," and that was, "Me, neither." And so both of us reveled in the fact that we had seen a photograph that people weren't generally aware of. And we filmed it, and went home for the day, and it's in our film on the Civil War.