November 24, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Ken Burns, Curated | Touch and Go

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photoKen Burns has been busy. The award-winning filmmaker’s seven-part television series, The Roosevelts, recently premiered on PBS, and Ken Burns, the app, was just released (Ken Burns LLC/Big Spaceship/Red Glass; iOS, Free lite version, $9.99 in-app full version; Gr 9 Up).

The app is both a visual time line of American history and a thematic compilation of clips from Burns’s documentaries, which have been praised  for their wide-angle treatments incorporating interviews and archival photos and videos. The time line, which also serves as an index, is a string of discs featuring images from the documentaries covering aspects of our nation’s history from 1619 to the present. Each disc is a link to a short clip from one of Burns’s feature-length films or series. The discs bunch up between the years 1850 and 1950—a period he has spent much time researching for “The Civil War” (1990); “Jazz” (2001); “The Dust Bowl” (2012); “The War” (2007); and other histories.

Viewers can travel the time line following the sequence of excerpts chronologically through the centuries, hop from clip to clip pursuing their interests, or access all the clips available under a film title (excerpts from 25 films are available).

photoThe excerpts are also curated. Under the themes of “Art,” “Hard Times,” “Innovation,” “Politics,” “Race,” “War,” and “Leadership” are 3 to 20 scenes selected by Burns from his films. In his introduction, the filmmaker states that these groupings or “playlists” allow viewers to see history through a different lens. The past “is just random events. However, over the course of time we see things emerging. Patterns. Interconnections. In the case of history, it’s all about ghosts…if you are aware, then history becomes that guide to the present, and you are able to participate not just in that moment, but in all moments.”


Screen from “Chinese Exclusion” from the film ‘The West.’

The playlists offer viewers opportunities to make numerous connections, including those that Burns points out in his introductions to each set: connections between perceptions of the political situation during the prohibition era and our reading of the current political climate, the thread of race through the American narrative, and how war brings out the worst in humankind and sometimes the best. And the list goes on. Under “Hard Times,” for example, are 10 scenes including the clips titled “Share the Wealth” from the film Huey Long; “Hunger and Thirst” from Prohibition; “FDR’s Fireside Chat” from Empire of the Air; and “Hard Times” from The Dust Bowl. The free “lite” version of the app includes the entire “Innovation” playlist—14 scenes from 10 different films. Topics related to art, music, and sports (particularly baseball), also make frequent appearances.

Functionality is smooth, the clips load quickly, and both visual and sound quality are excellent. A “Watch the Film” tab (on static screens) brings viewers to local PBS stations to view the full-length films, and/or to iTunes, Netflix, and Amazon where they can purchase the episodes and/or series. A thoughtful look at the panorama of American history and one man’s oeuvre.—Daryl Grabarek, School Library Journal

For additional app reviews, visit the Touch and Go webpage.

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Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.

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