Citizen historians

Ken Burns is urging “the YouTube generation” to take up their video cameras and interview veterans of World War II to feed an archive of personal histories at the Library of Congress. Citizen historians. He says in USA Weekend:

Thanks to a cooperative effort involving PBS and the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project, anyone can get a camera and conduct his or her own interviews of a loved one who lived through the war. All submissions will be cataloged by the library to become part of the permanent Veterans History Project collection. This is a great opportunity: When I made my Civil War documentary, participants were obviously long dead. But World War II remains very much alive in the memories of millions of Americans.

Get ’em while they’re still warm.

NewTeeVee points out the sad irony that Burns and the LoC are not having the YouTube generation use, uh, YouTube to share these videos. That makes this a rather closed, controlled effort: old media, old style, last generation. Imagine what could be loosed if they’d just use the tools of the age.

Of course, this isn’t the first effort to capture large orgal histories. Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation has been collecting the testimony of Holocaust survivors. In New York StoryCorps has been urging people to interview someone and some sometimes great radio comes out of this.

I frankly fear what Burns will do with this material. I know it’s heresy, but I find him and his work dull and dutiful: as predictable as the Ken Burns effect in iMovie.

But I do give him credit for thinking openly and publicly and inviting in more filmmakers to make more film: big pat on the back.

Indeed, think of all the journalism and history that could be gathered if we just dispatched people to take the cameras and ask people questions: Ask teachers about teaching, doctors about doctoring, children about technology. Let’s turn the cameras on our friends and family and see what learning comes out of it.

  • This is a great call to action, and I’ve no doubt it will result in a wealth of powerful, if not moving, content. My father is an 83 year old WW II vet and I’ve filmed hours and hours of him talking about all aspects of his war experience. In so many respects, having an extended conversation with him about his war years had deepened our bond. He never actually saw combat — he was stationed in both Africa and India during the war with the Air Force — but his stories are mesmerizing, engaging, just incredible. With more War Veterans doing this, there’s no question that an entirely new layer of historical understanding will emerge. And I’m still not finished from my end. — Pete Blackshaw

  • Sad irony?

    Who’s to say that YouTube isn’t controlling? It’s not like it’s the Creative Commons-blessed.

    The LoC answers this directly: “By donating hard copies of materials, you create a physical archival collection that will become a permanent part of the Library of Congress.”

    StoryCorps is fabulous, but I challenge YouTube (or any of its devotees) to generate as cohesive a series as has appeared on NPR. There’s no YouTube category for anything resembling “personal narrative as art.”

  • Eric Gauvin

    you think youtube is better than a Ken Burns documentary?!

  • Actually, some stations like KETC in St. Louis are indeed using YouTube, as well as Facebook, to give community members multiple options for submitting stories. And like Jon said, the lack of Creative Commons on YouTube still gives some of us pause.

    Meanwhile, PBS has also developed a telephone interface allowing folks to call in their stories, record a voicemail, and have it available for the public via various pbs station websites. The tool is still being tweaked, but a few stations like KECT and WETA are already deploying it. (full disclosure – I’ve been helping PBS teach local stations about user-generated content in regards to the phone interface.)

  • Esteban

    I like and admire Ken Burns. I would call his work predictable more than dull. It even makes me cry.

    But here is what I wonder about, and I say in advance that it is a concern I will probably have to get over in the era of networked, citizen-based content produced everywhere from backyards to garages to white hoyse press conferences.

    It’s that I can’t stop being a little skeptical every time I hear a clarion call from a successful media producer that all the citizens (I read “little people”) should start gathering content as part of some grand, noble civic project.

    I see a lot of grand, noble civic projects that are nothing more than get me some free content so I can make some money.

    After VA Tech, I’ll never the networks begging for a flowering of civic journalism and asking for cell phone camera or other video. Yet what they wanted — in their instant conversion to the citizen-based impulse — was a money-shot of some student bleeding or falling out of a window or something like it.

    So forgive me if I am at least skeptical when Burns wants citizens to start making video. I mean, I think we all shoul be doing what he suggests.

    But i can’t avoid doing what Mark Felt once told Woodstein to do: “Follow the money.”

  • Good idea from Ken Burns. My son did an interview on his college station, with a WWII vet who escaped from prison camp, made his way back to our guys, and was prosecuted because the Allies had asked GI’s not to escape as it made it rough on the ones left behind. Fascinating. The vet is dead now, glad the Kid captured this.

  • Great idea…in theory.

    Inviting the public to turn on their cameras is the easy part. I think creating a designated “home” for these stories the general population can discover and access easily is going to be the real challenge.

    FIrst off, there is so much “noise” on YouTube it makes finding real “gems” a difficult task.

    While having these stories available on YouTube would have been a nice addition, I imagine there are a lot of eyeballs like mine that do not spend any time there, simply because of the “noise.” We wouldn’t notice if they were there or not.

    Creating a new “home” whose sole mission is to share historical stories like Burns proposes will be, IMHO, the quantum leap in the land of “story 2.0.” Make it topic specific…easy to watch…easy to share.

    Too bad Burns couldn’t create such a home himself.

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  • Call me old fashioned, but for some reason I trust the Library of Congress to be a more lasting place to store interviews of WWII veterans than YouTube. Besides, I didn’t see anything in there which would prohibit the producers of these interviewers to also upload their interviews to YouTube and its ilk.

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