Arts & Entertainment

Archive in Virginia serves as storehouse of US audiovisual treasures

By Patricia de Arce

Culpeper, Virginia, Jul 22 (EFE).- Surrounded by farms and nestled amid the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Culpeper is a small town in the US state of Virginia that would go completely unnoticed if not for being home to a center that houses the world’s largest collection of moving images and sound recordings.

Known as the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, that unit of Washington DC’s Library of Congress is a unique space where around 100 employees work round-the-clock to digitally preserve and archive millions of recordings ranging from films and radio and television programs to songs and even sound effects.

The campus is located in a former Federal Reserve bunker that was built during the Cold War to house some $6 billion in US currency, which was to be used to replenish the cash supply east of the Mississippi River in the event of an economy-destroying nuclear attack.

That assumes anyone were alive to perform that task, Rob Stone, the Library of Congress’ moving image curator, joked while he and the curator of recorded sound, Matthew Barton, led Efe on a tour of a facility where 3.6 million sound recordings and 1.6 million reels of films and videotapes are stored.

The complex also is known as the Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation because after the bunker was abandoned and put up for sale in the early 1990s David W. Packard, the son of Hewlett-Packard’s founder, bought it from the government with a view to restoring it, refurbishing it and donating it to the Library of Congress for this new purpose.

Inside the center, original works must be stored inside chambers at temperatures of 2-3 C (36-37 F) to prevent rapid deterioration.

And even greater care is needed in the chambers used to store cellulose nitrate-based films, which were produced in the first half of the 20th century and, according to Stone, are highly flammable.

Those chambers are equipped with special security features, including small shelves that hold the works in pairs so the flames would not spread to the other material in the event of a fire and diagonal sprinklers that would allow a blaze to be extinguished without harming the audiovisual material.

But is all that effort necessary? Why not just make copies and let the originals deteriorate?

Barton explained that copies are a means of preserving the material but that the original must be stored as well because ever-improving technology enables better and better copies to be made.

The idea is that when a copy is made directly from the original with the best existing technology the quality of the copy will be the highest possible at that particular time.

Besides being protected from fire or deterioration, the originals are never permitted to leave the building, so if researchers request a particular piece of audiovisual material from the Library of Congress they are sent a digital copy.

Among the treasures stored at the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center are the first recorded sneeze from 1894, the first kiss captured on film (“The May Irwin Kiss,” an 18-second 1896 short), Frank Sinatra’s first recording in 1935 and the original copy of “The Great Train Robbery,” a silent film made in 1903 that is considered cinema’s first ‘western.”

The archive also is home to a staggering collection of feature-length films.

And in some instances – such as Frank Capra’s 1939 political comedy-drama classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” starring James Stewart – the original has been preserved.

The campus also is home to entire collections, including ones donated by Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis; Stone said the latter even insisted on meeting the people tasked with caring for his artistic legacy before handing it over.

Most of the center is closed to the public, the lone exception being a 206-seat theater with a red-velvet curtain and chandeliers.

Recently reopened after a two-year, pandemic-triggered hiatus, it is a replica of the one Packard owned in Palo Alto, California, and even features an organ underneath the stage for playing music during the screening of silent films. EFE


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