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A/V Heritage In the Country But Not Out to Pasture

• May 13, 2008 • 12:00 PM

The Library of Congress’ country home provides a nuclear blast-proof refuge for America’s celluloid and audio treasures.

For most of us, the words “Library of Congress” conjure an image of ornate marble pillars, detailed ceilings of paint and gold leaf, and enough architectural eye candy to keep the most jaded intrigued for hours. And then the collections — millions of books, paper ephemera, film and audio recordings; the collective repository of our cultural history.

Except … they aren’t there anymore. They’ve left the city and taken a country home.

Two hours to the southwest of Washington at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains is the new Library of Congress Packard Campus. From the highway, the swooping curve and rectilinear architectural planes of the main building inspires a sense of futurism and innovation, that within its walls surely some state-of-the-art activity is pursued. Yet the modest wood sign, teetering just slightly, poised on the new landscaping at the gated entry reads simply, “Library of Congress National Audio-Visual Conservation Center.”

With floor-to-ceiling glass, the entry space is embellished sparely by antique artifacts of film and audio technology. Lining the light wood walls are superb graphics of early 20th-century movie posters and album covers — displayed in the subdued lighting of built-in frames. One quickly feels the reverence celebrating the legacy of film and recording of the past century. In contrast, a continuous banner built into the entryway of the theater announces future film events. Perhaps it’s a purposeful stroke of the donor that its bright red LED message is reminiscent of the first hand-held calculators of early ’70s, when the name Hewlett-Packard became synonymous with innovation.

Although the genesis of the Packard Campus is about the past, its mission is all about the future. Mike Mashon, curator of the Moving Image Section, explained how the film preservation movement began with the controversy over Ted Turner’s colorization of old films for TV in the late 1980s.

“These films were now taking on a new life, and a renewed commercial value brought attention to old films,” he said. “Martin Scorsese then took the lead to campaign for the Film Preservation Act of 1988, which President Reagan signed into law.”

Mashon said this affected the scope of work for the Library of Congress acting as springboard for creating the National Film Board and the National Film Registry. While these efforts got the preservation ball rolling, what was really needed was one central site that could “do it all.”

The Library of Congress search for a home to safely and securely house the film and audio collections ended when Congress purchased the then-deserted Culpeper property from the Treasury Department. The goal, Mashon explained, was to bring all the library’s collections — which “were spread out in different places across the country” — under one roof, and create one facility to act as the centralized storage, catalogue and preservation facility. Enter film preservation philanthropist David Packard, who donated $150 million to the library for the project.

Built with sensitivity to the natural environment, the multilevel structure follows the curve of the Mount Pony hillside; its glass walls offering staff a panoramic view of the mountains and Virginia countryside. Yet the true “treasures” of the Library of Congress lie hidden underground in multiple bunkers once intended as Treasury Department storage for U.S. paper money, in the event of a nuclear attack.

Today, Mashon said, “These vaults are the climate-controlled home for more than 5 million artifacts in sound recordings, films and videotape; many of them one of a kind, and irreplaceable.”

But the curatorial efforts for these 90 miles of artifacts — the largest repository in the world of motion picture, television, audio recordings — is not one of passive storage.

“We have three floors now to efficiently manage our collections from cataloguing, chemical restoration when necessary, and preservation to digitized formats,” Mashon explained.

“Specialists must watch or listen to unlabeled films and recordings in order to appropriately catalogue the information, and we’re competing with time to chemically restore and preserve the images on decaying nitrate and rare films. Then, all the information has to be preserved so it is accessible.”

Making the collections accessible means transferring it from a format that is obsolete, such as Beta tape, or impractical for public viewing — most people do not have projectors to run film — and transferring the images to digital files. The Moving Image Archives is the library initiative to make the collections accessible. Jane Otto, project director of the MIC, describes its function as both archival responsibility of the physical artifacts and providing the means for public accessibility.
Access to these collections is open to everyone.

“If someone found out a family member was in a film or a commercial and he wants a copy of these images, a few things must happen,” Otto said. “First, if the recording is not in public domain, the customer must prove in writing that they have permission from the copyright holder to access the item. Then, we will make them a copy on either DVD or CD.”

MIC’s long-term goal is to provide that image to the customer through a digitized desktop download. The library charges an hourly production fee for this work, but in the long run “it’s really a small price to pay for access to one-of-a-kind and/or rare footage,” Otto said. Filmmakers, educators and scientists represent the bulk of MIC requests, but as their services become more widely known, requests come increasingly from the general public.

But once copied, the preservation effort does not end. Moving images will need continuous preserving; a never-ending process to keep up with the changes in an evolving technology. That rare foreign film, transferred to the DVD of today’s digital world, will need to be preserved again as formats evolve.

“Film is a physical artifact, and we have a trust at Packard to take care of it,” Mashon said. “There is nothing like the visual experience, and our work here every day, is to conserve those images and preserve them for the future.”

 

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Barbara Hesselgrave
Barbara Hesselgrave is a freelance writer in Virginia specializing in issues of community medicine, science and international health.

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