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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)

The Library of Congress project is the largest in the foundation's history. "The reason we spent so much money is that it required a lot of money. There wasn't any way to do it unless we were willing to make a large commitment," Packard said. He said he hoped there would eventually be broader access to the collection, particularly for people outside Washington.

At a ceremony last night at the library's main building, the Culpeper property was transferred from Packard and his architecture and construction team to the office of the architect of the Capitol, which oversees the Library of Congress.

The nerve center of the campus is the collections building, a 135,000-square-foot facility that once housed the Federal Reserve Bank. The structure was completely gutted and refitted. There is also a conservation building and a separate building containing the storage vaults.

"These storage facilities are better than the library has ever had in the past and better than some standards for preservation recommend," said Gregory Lukow, the center's chief, standing in the three-story atrium.

The public will have access to the facility and materials. Programs will begin at the theater next winter, and the stored recordings also will be accessible electronically to researchers in the reading rooms on the Hill. When a researcher asks for a film or recording that hasn't been digitized, that work moves to the top of the list and a digital version should be available in two days. Already-digitized items will be available immediately.

The staff is happy to have everything in one location. For years, materials were divided among centers on Capitol Hill and in Landover; Jessup; Dayton, Ohio; Boyers, Pa.; and nearby Elkwood.

Several new technologies have been developed for the center. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory developed IRENE (Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.), a machine that reconstructs damaged or broken recordings and clears out the noise created by dust or deterioration. It means that old 78-rpm records that had cracked when dropped can be heard again, digitally.

The library must contend with many now-obsolete formats ranging from 1889 wax cylinders to eight-track tape from 1964. The oldest moving image in the collection is a five-second kinetoscope movie of a sneeze, made by Thomas Edison in 1894. (The kinetoscope was a forerunner of the modern film projector.) The oldest sounds are on two wax cylinders produced by Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter in 1889.

Much of the collection is in analog formats, such as grooved records or electromagnetic tape. "That is becoming obsolete," said Lukow. "For film especially, it is not a matter of how we are keeping it but how it was developed 100 years ago, how it was stored 100 years ago. It is a ticking time bomb."

On the third floor are a sound lab, a videotape lab and a film lab, which are located behind a firewall because the materials handled are fire hazards. The staff has work stations that can be used for viewing the digital or pre-digital materials. There is also storage for spare parts, because the library staff doesn't know when it will have to use one of its old machines.

Film can present challenges because of the large image resolution and the space it takes up. In one room, there is an Imax movie propped against a counter, waiting for a spacious nook.

Some images don't have to be digitized. There are shelves of video games -- Reader Rabbit, the Sims, Myst -- being inventoried and prepared for storage.

The library receives 120,000 gifts of film and sound a year. Mitch Miller just sent 200 boxes of 16mm copies of his TV program from the 1960s. Collector and former recording engineer David Hummel donated recordings of 12,000 musical theater moments, including a rehearsal by Judy Garland in 1968.

Eventually, the library will make electronic copies of those items and, because the library's holdings are so precious, copies of the copies will be kept elsewhere in Virginia.

The librarians won't say where.

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