A Sound Investment
Packard Heir Gives Library of Congress Va. Facility for Audio and Film Treasures

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.

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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