A lot of history went up in flames at the National Archive's film storage facility in Suitland recently. The spectacular blaze consumed about 12.5 million running feet of highly flammable nitrate film, all "outtakes" (leftovers) from newsreels made by Universal Studios between 1929 and 1951. The footage covered a whole range of public events, from the depths of the Depression to World War II battles to beauty contests and sporting events. Though other news film from those years is available, nobody knows what unique glimpses of the past were lost.

Since a smaller fire destroyed a vault of "March of Time" outtakes last year, the Archives had intensified its efforts to safeguard this volatile celluloid until it could be copied onto modern safety film. But the job should be speeded to protect the Archives' remaining 13.4 million feet of Universal film as well as larger collections of old movies in the Library of Congress' special vaults.

Archives officials calculate that they would need about $2.5 million to finish their part of this task in two years. The Library would need somewhat more. Can this be found without running up the federal deficit? Government agencies, especially the military services, spend many times $2.5 million on new audiovisual productions each year. Surely some money could be diverted to preserve the sounds and pictures of the past.