Projecting the Future Needs of Preservation

Gregory Lukow at the new National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, whose development in Culpeper he has overseen for the Library of Congress.
Gregory Lukow at the new National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, whose development in Culpeper he has overseen for the Library of Congress. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 30, 2008

Our cultural treasury, preserved by the Library of Congress, is vast and unpredictable. It includes "Casablanca" with Bogie and the only live concert recording of jazzmen Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. But there's also Bea Arthur as an alien cantina chanteuse in a legendarily awful "Star Wars" TV special from 1978. And in recent years, Islamic recordings via the al-Jazeera channel.

Gregory Lukow, chief of the library's Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, has overseen the centralization of 5.7 million such audio and visual artifacts at a repurposed Cold War-era government bunker in Culpeper.

This new National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, in addition to its temperature-controlled vaults, features a specially developed robotic preservation system that will make items available faster to scholars and the public.

Is this move urgent, or even necessary?

It's especially urgent for magnetic media such as videotape, where the center's new visual technologies will allow for the first time for significant increases in the preservation of hundreds of thousands of deteriorating videotapes in the library's collection. Videotape is a slow rot -- it's just not a long-term medium. It ranges from CNN's 24/7 coverage from 20 years ago to "The 'Star Wars' Holiday Special," which is one of the first things we're going to digitize. It's incredibly, wonderfully campy, a must-be-seen-to-be-believed artifact of its time. We've selected it as the first tape to be preserved in our new robotic digital videotape preservation system [called SAMMA].

What's the coolest technology you'll have at your disposal, and why is it important?

Besides SAMMA, there's another machine invented for [the Culpeper campus] as well called IRENE, a sound preservation technology. The name was chosen to honor [blues guitarist] Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene," which was one of the first things they worked on in the prototype of the machine. It's a system that uses digital imaging technologies to be able to capture the sounds of grooved media. . . . It can even do it with broken disks. It's a laser that takes millions of photographs of grooves and reconstructs sounds from the digital imaging.

No offense to your cataloguing skills, but in this big move that began three years ago, have you found or discovered items that have surprised you?

It's not that we found items. We knew we had X number of films, video or sound recordings, but when you get into them you discover little jewels of content. . . . About two years ago, we were giving a final inspection to all the nitrate film holdings at our Dayton, Ohio, office, and we discovered two different-length copies of "Baby Face" [a 1933 Barbara Stanwyck drama about a woman who uses sex to advance her social status]. We discovered one copy was indeed a pre-censored, original version.

What was too racy in 1933?

Even the censored version made it abundantly clear Stanwyck's character was sleeping her way to the top through a succession of ever more powerful men. But the original version was more blatant in showing how she was prostituted by her father, how she uses Nietzsche's "will to power" [philosophy] as her inspiration to "use men" and "crush all sentiment," and in the leering depiction of the seduction of her lovers, including one inside a ladies restroom. Perhaps the biggest broken taboo, however, was that she got away with everything at the end, with no moral retribution or movie comeuppance.

How bizarrely specialized does your preservation staff get?

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