A Sound Investment

The National Audio-Visual Conservation Center will unite over 6 million items.
The National Audio-Visual Conservation Center will unite over 6 million items. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 27, 2007

CULPEPER, Va. -- On a hillside an hour or so southwest of Capitol Hill, the Library of Congress is moving into the newly completed home for its mammoth collection of U.S. recording and film history.

There are 6.3 million items in all: footage of Charlie Chaplin's tottering gait, paper prints of early movies, the original negatives from "Casablanca," the first 45-rpm record (a 1949 RCA Victor disc of the music of Johann Strauss II) and kinescope reels of NBC broadcasts from the 1940s. There's a fine copy of Elvis Presley's 1964 movie "Viva Las Vegas," a complete set of Ed Sullivan's variety shows and footage of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's speech on Dec. 7, 1941.

The National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, which was officially turned over to the library yesterday, will bring together all of the recordings and conservation staff in a single, specially equipped facility for the first time.

The three-building campus is the largest addition to the library in 30 years. A $155 million gift from David Woodley Packard (son of the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard) and the Packard Humanities Institute made it possible. The Packard gift is the largest in the library's 207-year history. Congress appropriated $82 million for the project.

"It assures for the first time the permanent storage and preservation and heightened access to the audiovisual heritage of the last 110 years," said James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress.

One crucial mission of the center is to transfer precious historical images and sounds from fragile cylinders, tapes or films to digital files, which are less apt to deteriorate. The electronic versions also can be summoned by researchers at the Library of Congress buildings in Washington.

A 208-seat, art deco theater will show the films up to three nights a week. It even has an organ to accompany silent movies. While most of those visiting the center will be scholars and researchers -- who will have access beginning in September -- there is an audio-listening studio that will be used for exhibits, demonstrations and other public programs.

The addition sits on 45 acres and contains 415,000 square feet, about eight times the size of the White House. The inventory: 3 million sound recordings, 2.1 million supporting documents (such as screenplays and posters) and 1.2 million moving images.

It has 124 specially designed vaults for nitrate films, the highly flammable medium used from 1889 to 1951 for almost all movies. Some of the vaults are kept at 25 degrees. There are other specialized nooks and crannies; one electronic hub required 27,000 cables.

One workroom houses a blue robot named SAMMA (System for the Automated Migration of Media Assets) that can load and digitize videocassettes 24 hours a day. The digital copies will last for decades and are more convenient for researchers and the public. In time it will make electronic copies of 500,000 video and television segments. In the film laboratory, employees will repair reels of film by hand before the movies can be transferred to new film. Not far away is a sound studio fitted with a special vibration-free transcription turntable. Only 20 exist in the world; the library has 13.

David Woodley Packard, chairman of the Packard Humanities Institute, purchased the property from the Federal Reserve System in 1998.

Conservation is part of the foundation's mission. It helped save the papers of Benjamin Franklin and also helped preserve many original Latin and Greek texts and put them online.

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