Library’s Preservation Team Settles Into New Home

Posted August 31, 2007 at 6:13pm

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 Others are from a technological past: Eight-tracks, record players and other outdated technology take up an entire room, so LOC employees can fix playback machines that are now defunct.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.

There also are more personal perks: LOC employees assigned to the center get to work in a setting far different from the dark spaces of their former offices. The building melds into a hillside, with large windows that oversee the picturesque surroundings and tall ceilings that make everything feel open. Of the 90 employees whose jobs moved from Capitol Hill to Culpeper, half decided not to go and were either reassigned or given a retirement offer. But the 45 or so who moved are happy to work in an architectural marvel, complete with an atrium with tables for breaks and lunches, Mashon said. They’ll eventually be joined by about 90 new hires.

“That’s been a very successful transition,” Mashon said. “People like it here.”

The facility isn’t meant for tourists or visitors, except for weekly free film screenings scheduled to begin in 2008. But the attention to detail is obvious from the lobby. Vintage film posters are encased in glass on the walls and lead to a cinema, designed by Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard. It’s inspired by the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, Calif., with carpets and seats that mimic the movie palaces of the late 1920s. Five different projectors can play anything from 70-millimeter film to digital video, and a digital organ can reproduce the accompanying sounds for silent films. Forty speakers hide behind the walls.

But the real technology is in the facility’s conservation and preservation rooms. A fire at the National Archives in the 1970s ruined reels of nitrate film, a highly flammable material used before 1951. So the NAVCC created special (and very cold) vaults to prevent another catastrophe. Each film has its own cubbyhole; if a fire breaks out in one, a water pipe fills up that cubby to contain it.

Vaults for other films, CDs and cassettes are underground in an old Federal Reserve building, which connects to the new facility. The master copies of films such as “An American in Paris” stay in rooms kept at 25 degrees, and extra parkas lay in a corner for shivering employees. On another floor, sound recordings are kept in their own 50-degree environment. Materials must move through three floors of sorting, inspecting and data rooms before making it to those vaults and on to computers. The building is designed to make that journey as smooth as possible.

It can still take a long time. Some unpublished work only has the scrawling of private collectors or amateur musicians, and LOC staff has to decide the best way to file it all. Much of the audio and visual work that is not digital must be copied individually, with technicians playing the entire work in real time as they make a copy of preservation quality. Nine rooms with cutting-edge sound systems and soundproof walls help engineers handle those more difficult tasks.

“When you think about getting that done in real time, it’s a challenge,” said Gene DeAnna, head of the Recorded Sound Section.

But the LOC is determined to complete its task, and in a few months the rest of the collection will be delivered and their conservation efforts will speed up. As the curator for audio and visual history, the Library is hoping to preserve it all, whether it’s a famous movie or an unknown sound bite, Mashon said.

“We may be the only entity that stands between moving image and its destruction,” he explained.