Library Of Congress Preserves A Treasure Trove...underground (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Library Of Congress Preserves A Treasure Trove Underground

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:02
But we kick off today's saving and spending show with a rather distinctive kind of saving. And listen up because this saving sounds an awful lot like this...

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:13
And this...

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:16
And this...

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:19
It even sounds like this...

MR. ROBERT CRISTARELLA

00:00:35
Actually can't play it much more than that, a defect in the cylinder makes the needle start jumping out like crazy.

SHEIR

00:00:41
So we've got all these hums and buzzes and clicks and now we've got cylinders from the early 1900s.

CRISTARELLA

00:00:46
Well, actually, 1913, this particular cylinder.

SHEIR

00:00:49
Okay. Cylinders from 1913. At this point, you've got to be wondering, what exactly is going on here? Well, these are just some of the sounds being made as scores of archivists and engineers, like our cylinder guy, Rob Cristarella, race to save our countries audio, visual history through preservation. And they're doing it in a half million square foot facility literally built into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Its name is kind of a mouthful...

CRISTARELLA

00:01:13
The Library of Congress, Packard Campus for Audio, Visual Conservation in Culpepper, Va.

SHEIR

00:01:18
Is there a sort of an acronym for that?

CRISTARELLA

00:01:20
We usually just referred to it as the Packard Campus.

SHEIR

00:01:23
Fair enough. Mike Mashon heads up the moving image section at the Packard Campus. So he knows all about those first three sounds we just heard. One...

SHEIR

00:01:32
A 1915 romantic comedy shot on 28mm film, being transferred to more durable 35mm. Two...

SHEIR

00:01:41
A two-inch quad video tape of "The David Susskind Show," being transferred to digital. And three...

SHEIR

00:01:49
...a 3/4 inch video tape, in this case early episodes of "All My Children," being transferred to digital by, I kid you not, a robot. The Library of Congress Packard Campus maintains the world's largest collection of film, video and sound. The library also houses the copyright office. So between the 30,000 items Packard receives for copyright each year and the numerous materials sent as donations.

MR. MATTHEW BARTON

00:02:14
We have roughly 1.2 million moving image items and about over three million sound recordings.

SHEIR

00:02:21
As a total radio nerd, I just got so excited when you said that. That second guy, the one who made my heart go pitter-pat, is Mathew Barton. He's Packard's curator of recorded sound. Like those old wax cylinders which engineers are working to digitize. So this black cylinder I'm holding up, when did this date back to?

BARTON

00:02:39
Oh, probably sometime between 1898 and 1912.

SHEIR

00:02:46
Seriously?

BARTON

00:02:46
Yeah.

SHEIR

00:02:47
I just started shaking when you said that.

BARTON

00:02:49
Then you better let me hold it.

SHEIR

00:02:52
Okay. I seriously need to stop geeking out here. But it's hard because the Library of Congress collects and preserves all kinds of amazing sound at the Packard Campus.

MR. MIKE MASHON

00:03:00
We've got 78s, LPs, 45s.

SHEIR

00:03:03
Not to mention a zillion kinds of tape, even Player piano reels. And if this next tidbit doesn't make your heart go pitter-pat, I don't know what will. The Packard Campus facility where all these millions of materials are being stored is actually a cold war bunker. I am not joking. Here, Mike Mashon will back me up.

MASHON

00:03:24
The original facility that was here was owned by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Va. It was built in the 1970s. And at its peak, it stored $3 billion in coin and currency which was going to be used to restart the U.S. economy East of the Mississippi in the event of a nuclear war.

SHEIR

00:03:42
See, told you I wasn't joking.

MASHON

00:03:44
And in 1997, the Packard Humanities Institute purchased that.

SHEIR

00:03:48
That's Packard as in David Woodley Packard, the philanthropist son of Hewlett Packard's co-founder.

MASHON

00:03:53
With the idea of converting it for storage for the moving image and sound recording collections along with some preservation laboratories.

SHEIR

00:04:02
In July 2007, Packard donated the campus to the Library of Congress. His donation tied with Wolf Trap as the second biggest private sector gift the Federal government had ever seen. The biggest is the Smithsonian Institution. And now, as a result, we have this massive multi-storied, mostly underground, labyrinth of preservation labs, recording studios and concrete storage vaults. Okay, it's a little chilly in here.

MASHON

00:04:29
39 degrees Fahrenheit, 30 percent relative humidity.

SHEIR

00:04:33
But then, how else are you doing to preserve a 124 vaults of nitrate film?

MASHON

00:04:37
Each one of these vaults holds roughly 1,500 cans of film. Now, why do we have such small vaults? Should a fire event occur, you might lose an entire vault but you wouldn't lose your entire collection.

SHEIR

00:04:53
See, nitrate film was all the rage until 1951 when cellulous acetate took over. Nitrate is highly flammable. It creates its own oxygen. So if it catches fire, not even water will put out the flames. Thus, when it comes to nitrate, fire equals bad.

MASHON

00:05:09
Film history is full of sad stories of nitrate collections that were lost because of fire.

SHEIR

00:05:17
Very, very bad.

MASHON

00:05:19
A lot of Swedish film history was lost because of the nitrate caught on fire, it was bombed during World War II.

SHEIR

00:05:26
And as recently as 1978, a fire at the national archives in Suitland, Md., obliterated 12 million feet of film.

MASHON

00:05:33
Because when the fire department showed up, in order to release pressure in the building, they opened up the vault doors which allowed the fire to spread from vault to vault to vault which is exactly what you're not supposed to do.

SHEIR

00:05:46
That sad event taught the Packard folks a lot about fire safety and prevention which Mashon explains after leading me into one of the studio collection vaults.

MASHON

00:05:54
We’re going to go into one of our Columbia vaults here.

SHEIR

00:05:56
It's nice and chilly, of course, lined with shelves of cubbies, each holding two film canisters. In the event of fire, there's a chimney to help funnel smoke and overhead water sprinklers to help -- wait, didn't we just say water can't put out a nitrate fire?

MASHON

00:06:09
So what's the point of having water sprinklers in here?

SHEIR

00:06:13
What is the point of having water sprinklers?

MASHON

00:06:14
I'm really glad that you asked, Rebecca. Let's say a fire event does occur. A wall of water is released that would coat all of the shelves that you see in this small vault. And it would allow the fire to sort of burn out within the cubby.

SHEIR

00:06:29
So you might lose like a reel or two.

MASHON

00:06:31
But you wouldn’t lose anything else in the vault. We fear fire much more then we fear water.

SHEIR

00:06:37
But the other thing they fear at the Packard Campus, Mashon says, is time. So many of the video and audio recordings they've collected have a shelf life. I mean, 28mm film degrades. Two inch quad video tape wears out. Cylinders get damaged. That's why it's so important to get all of this stuff cataloged and preserved.

MASHON

00:06:56
And we're not preserving it for the sake of preserving it. We want people to be able to hear and see what's gone before.

SHEIR

00:07:05
Because then Mike Mashon says, not only might we figure out who we were and who we are, but maybe, just maybe, who we might become. You can see photos of the Packard Campus and find a schedule of the free screenings they offer there on our website, metroconnection.org. You also can hear some rare original sound recordings from the collection, including Eleanor Roosevelt's radio address, the night before her husband's day of infamy speech and the climax and aftermath of the Joe Louis, Max Schmeling boxing rematch of June 22, 1938. Again, it's all at metroconnection.org.
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