ITT: Touring the Archives of the Vietnam War

Sep 1, 2017

When the 18-hour documentary film series on the Vietnam War begins later this month, Texas Tech University’s Vietnam Center and Archives will have contributed indispensably to the production. “From the standpoint of being an archive that provided materials that have been used as this, almost a revolutionary documentary about the Vietnam War, I’d say it was probably pretty essential,” Steve Maxner, the Center’s Director, said.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick spent years pulling together material -- film footage, still photography, interviews and other information and documentation -- for their 10-part film that starts Sept. 17 on KTTZ, Channel 5.

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Segments of most of the documentary’s episodes will be shown tonight in the Firehouse Theatre inside the Louise Hopkins Underwood Center for the Arts as part of the First Friday Art Trail.

The Vietnam War is arguably the country’s most controversial military involvement. More than 58,000 Americans died. More than three million North and South Vietnamese civilians and soldiers died.

Members of Burns’ and Novick’s production team came to Lubbock to visit the center in early 2014. The documentary film series will have pieces of digitized footage donated to the center by veterans. Those will come from 8-millimeter, super-8-millimeter and 16-millimeter footage taken during the war years. Also, the documentary series will use 14 digitized still photos from the center’s archive. A companion book about the series will include five additional photos donated by veterans.

According to Maxner, The Vietnam War is going to evoke a lot of emotion and a lot of passion from many viewers, depending on their personal experience at that time.

Created in 1989 by the Texas Tech Board of Regents at the suggestion of a group of West Texas Vietnam War veterans, the center and its archives house the largest and most comprehensive collection of materials relating to the Vietnam conflict outside of the U.S. National Archives.

The center’s virtual archives, which now has 7 million pages online, opened in 2001. Since 2002, nearly 55 million online searches of the virtual archive have been made from 165 countries. The U.S. tops the list of distinct users; Vietnam’s distinct user numbers rank fifth.

The virtual archive includes official government documents, after-action reports from battlefields, a large collection of soldier’s viewpoints, film footage and photographs, and materials from civilians in Vietnam and the US who were part of the war action. This year alone, people have downloaded nearly 1.2 million files.

There’s a finding aid in the virtual archive that allows visitors to more easily locate what they are looking for. Maxner calls the archive, quote, “one-stop shopping.”

The Vietnam Center, located in the Special Collections Library on campus, was the first university-based partner in the Department of Defense’s 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War Commemoration.

“My hope is it’s going to increase obviously, curiosity, and interest in the Vietnam War overall and that will prompt people to start doing research and that will bring them to us,” Maxner said.

The first episode of the documentary, entitled “Deja Vu,” juxtaposes the French involvement in the Southeast Asian country with how the Americans navigated its war with North Vietnam. The French occupied Vietnam for about a century before Vietnam emerged independent but divided into North and South.

“It’s this really complex subject,” he said. “They’re doing a tremendous job of really looking at this different nuanced issues and getting to the heart of it. And I think that’s a hallmark of what they’ve done with so many other important topics.”