CULPEPER, Va. — Millions of films, cassettes, videotapes and century-old sound equipment sit in temperature-controlled rooms at the Library of Congress’ new audiovisual facility in Virginia, but most of the brand-new desks remain empty.
Eventually, 138 employees will sort through America’s film and sound history, leaving behind an accessible trail of classics such as “Gone With the Wind,” World War II radio programs and snippets of New York cabbie conversations. It’s part of the Library’s mission to not only preserve the cartloads of information it gets every day, but also to make it available to the public at the Library and online.
“We very well realize that a lot of students are not going to a library and want to do research in a dorm room,” said Mike Mashon, curator for the Moving Image Section of the LOC’s Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.
The 415,000-square-foot facility is an impressive mix of past and future — it feels like a version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, with chemical vats and mega-computers instead of chocolate lakes and lickable wallpaper. In a few months, the facility will be in full swing, digitizing tapes and video into as many as 5 million gigabytes a year. Eventually, a visitor to the Library’s reading room will be able to request a recent blockbuster or Thomas Edison’s 1903 film “The Great Train Robbery” and watch a downloaded copy.
Of course, the collection includes millions of obscure sights and sounds, such as parlor music from the turn of the century, and most of it probably never will be accessed at all.
“We’re just going through and trying to preserve it as quickly as we can,” Mashon said. “I don’t suffer under the delusion that most of this stuff will be looked at.”
About 40 employees now work at the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, and in the next few weeks, half a dozen more will move from the Library’s Motion Picture Conservation Center in Dayton, Ohio. The Culpeper facility will allow them to archive and preserve like never before, using machines that can digitize and copy almost automatically. Some machines were invented just for the LOC, such as one that can clean, inspect and digitize six tapes at the same time. Others are from a technological past: Eight-tracks, record players and other outdated technology take up an entire room, so LOC employees can fix playback machines that are now defunct. If they can’t fix something, some recordings could be lost forever, making the facility’s purpose even more important.
“In 50 years, students will know more about the Greeks and stone tablets than they will about us” because of outdated playback machines, said Stephen Nease, chief technology officer.
The building was completed with a $155 million donation from the Packard Humanities Institute and an $80 million allocation from Congress. With 6 million pieces of audiovisual material and accompanying documents, Library employees are excited about the prospect of preserving it all at an unprecedented rate.