Celebrating the History of Motion Pictures from 1890 to 1960

The Library of Congress

Packard Campus for Audio–Visual Conservation

(formerly: NAVCC – The National Audio–Visual Conservation Center)

“Preserving the Past”

(Click HERE for Part 1)

Part 2, Accomplishing the Mission.

“Movies, television and sound recordings are the people’s art forms. They tell us who we were, who we are, and perhaps where we’re going.”

Mike Mashon, Head, Moving Image Section, Library of Congress

“If you want things to be right 30 years from now, you must store and preserve them properly now.”

Steve Legget, National Film Preservation Board
The entrance to the NAVCC Conservation Building.

To Catalog, Preserve, and Provide Access:

The Library of Congress has statutory responsibility under the American Television and Radio Archives provision of the 1976 Copyright Act, the National Film Preservation Act of 1996, and the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000 to preserve and make accessible the audiovisual heritage of the United States. The Library’s Packard Campus for Audio–Visual Conservation in Culpeper, VA, is the first centralized facility in America specially planned and designed to fulfill this mission.

With over 1.1 million items in the Packard Campus’ moving image collection (including such treasures as the original camera negative of Thomas Edison’s 1903 landmark movie “The Great Train Robbery”), nearly 3 million items in its audio collection, and over 2.1 million supporting documents, the safe storage and preservation of this immense audiovisual inventory is one of the Packard Campus’ most important challenges. In addition to storage and preservation, the Packard Campus staff is responsible for cataloging and restoring each item in the collection, digitizing it for distribution, and finally making the digitized files available to researchers, students, and other interested parties. All of this is tracked and scheduled throughout the new Packard Campus using a Web 2.0 based infrastructure integrated with a professional Business Process Management system.

The exacting techniques of proper storage take place in the Collections Building (which is the former bunker used by the Federal Reserve) and the Nitrate Film Storage Building. Both areas are underground and climate controlled, but whereas the bunker that became the Collections Building had to be completely gutted before being reconfigured with high–density, mobile shelving, and reinforced to accommodate the substantial weight of the Library’s collections, the Nitrate Film Building was built from scratch and has specially designed blast–proof vaults for storing the unstable nitrate film used for motion pictures before 1953. Both buildings are energy–efficient and well suited for the low–temperature, low–humidity storage, that is so necessary for long–term preservation.

Digitizing the Packard Campus’ collection is done using the latest state–of–the–art equipment, such as Prism Sound’s ADA–8XR analog–to–digital converters, and with the assistance of specially designed robotic systems. One such system named IRENE (Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.) automatically creates high–resolution digital maps of the grooved surface of fragile or damaged audio recordings (like the earliest records) and then reconstructs the sound using computer software. Another robotic system called SAMMA (System for the Automated Migration of Media Assets) works 24 hours a day creating preservation–quality Motion JPEG2000 digital files from cassette–based media. These and other digital files are transmitted directly to the Library of Congress through a high–speed, fiber–optic link.

The work flow of SAMMA.

Researchers in the Washington, DC, reading rooms use a robust search engine to call up the digitized content from the Packard Campus for immediate playback on demand. Using off–site federal computer facilities to back–up their electronic content, the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio–Visual Conservation plans to process in its first year (2007–2008):

  • 25,000 hours of recorded sound from all formats to WAV digital files;
  • 48,000 hours of video to Motion JPEG2000 digital files;
  • 450 hours of 16mm video, scanned from their “paper print” collection;
  • and film–to–film conversions equivalent to 200 feature films a year.

This amounts to 2 petabytes of digital content, equivalent to the content of a stack of 700MB–CDs over two miles high. These statistics will increase to an annual rate of 3–5 petabytes in future years.

The Mount Pony Theater – Back to the Future:

Detective Polhaus: “What is it?”
Sam Spade: “The stuff that dreams are made of.” 
The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The NAVCC Packard Campus theater.

Located to the right as you enter the lobby of the Conservation Building, the Packard Campus’ Mount Pony Theater is immediately visible and will undoubtedly become one of the most coveted destinations for any visitor. This beautiful 206–seat, art deco theater was designed to reflect theater motifs from the Golden Age of Hollywood. The carpet was specially woven in Belgium, a grand organ can rise from beneath the stage to provide music for silent films, and the chandeliers are replicas of ones found in the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro, CA. It is said that when Jack Warner first saw the Warner Grand Theatre (an ornate movie palace that opened in 1931) he called it “The Castle of Your Dreams.” Perhaps he would have said the same about the Packard Campus Theater’s intimate but elegant interior.

However, unlike the movie theaters of bygone eras, the Mount Pony Theater has state–of–the–art projection and sound equipment that will be capable of showing everything from early nitrate films to the latest digital media. Beginning sometime in 2008 there are plans afoot to use the theater for regular theatrical screenings, festivals, and symposia that will be free and open to the public.
(UPDATE: The screening schedule for this theater can be found on the Library of Congress’ website.)

Judged by any criteria the new Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio–Visual Conservation is stunning. But none of it would have been possible without the generosity and vision of the Packard Humanities Institute and its president, Dr. David W. Packard. The $155 million grant from the Institute, the largest private gift ever received by the United States Government’s Legislative Branch, and the wise counsel of Dr. Packard and his team were instrumental in developing and creating the unique concept of the Packard Campus in general, and the Conservation Building in particular. This facility provides us all with both the promise and the assurance that through the work of the Library of Congress an essential part of our past will not be lost, and that the sounds and moving images captured during the past 100+ years will always be available to:

“. . . those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to their interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble the past if it does not reflect it.”

Thucydides (Greek historian, c. 460–400 B.C.)

America’s audiovisual heritage is a vital, evocative component of our collective memory. It not only helps us acquire that knowledge of our past which is so indispensable for our understanding of the present, it also has the unique ability to immerse us both visually and audibly in that past so that we can, in a profound way, both comprehend it with our minds and relive it in our hearts. Is there any more important task than preserving that heritage for future generations? Surely not!

In addition to revealing our past, these vintage films and recordings represent some of the best entertainment that has ever been produced. So the next time you grab a bag of popcorn and slip an old movie into your DVD player, remember the work of the staff at The Library of Congress Packard Campus. Because of them and other dedicated preservationists you’ll always be able to be transported back in time and, like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”, discover what it’s like when you aren’t in Kansas anymore.

The End.

<< return to PART 1

© 2007 The Picture Show Man. All Rights Reserved

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