November 19, 2017

Vietnam Catharsis: Welcome Release From Burns and Novick | Blatant Berry

I’m certain I am not the only American who has finally achieved the catharsis we needed for so long by watching PBS’s production The Vietnam War, the great film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. (In a starred review, it is a recommended purchase for all libraries—see LJ 10/1/17, p. 48). The tragedy of the events and the emotions many of us have borne since have finally been given release and relief in this newest archival work of art. We all owe Burns and his colleagues our gratitude.

As librarians and archivists we have a special appreciation for works of such intense impact that also record for us the crucial details of the awful circumstances every American experienced in that unhappy time. That, after all, is one key purpose of libraries and archives and one reason why we have built the institutions and collections to make such documentation available. Not many such compilations have the power of Burns’s work, but when they do, we gain understanding of our past and that catharsis that allows us to live on, remember it, and yet suffer much less intensely the emotional and mental strain we have carried from those experiences and the memories they left with us.

I will be forever indebted to Burns for this production and for reminding me that this is one of the most important reasons we must revisit our past and its documentation, collect it, and ensure that generations to come can learn what we did and how we felt about it. That, of course, is the purpose of archives and history when they effectively present the depth and breadth of carefully selected detail that chronicles the consequences of events on individuals and our society.

Too often we get versions of our past that are cleansed and less scrupulous, so we can’t know the truth of what happened and how our forerunners reacted to it.

That is especially true of the history we get of times when we were mired in controversy and deep disagreement and even took to the streets and the battlefields with our arguments. Too much of our backstory has been revised by those who endeavor to strengthen their agenda or make us less ashamed of the weaknesses we exhibited and wrongs we committed as a group, a society, a race, or a nation. Sometimes we can recover the lost truths of our past, but it is so much better when we get an unadulterated version such as the one provided by Burns and Novick. It is often painful and always perplexing to experience that time and that war again, but revisiting it with these filmmakers gives us a true understanding and a trustworthy account. For that we can be grateful.

The program delivers the many faceted truths about the Vietnam War. By doing that, it helps us appreciate the function of archives and reputable, accurate, and comprehensive history. It is an important lesson for those of us whose profession requires us to make that information available to all.

Collecting and reporting that legacy is one of our fundamental responsibilities as archivists and librarians. We are duty-bound to bring the past to the present as honestly as possible. That means not only possessing the facts but curating and connecting them to provide the context that turns fact into meaning. Documentary creations like Burns and Novick’s make our work much easier.

This article was published in Library Journal's November 1, 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III (jberry@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.

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Comments

  1. Noel Elliot says:

    This is a wonderful recommendation for a wonderful and factual film. It also explains WHY there were huge protests throughout a great many countries, again and again. Now we can at least have some relief because the real story has finally been told.

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