Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains sits a half-million-square-foot facility filled with audio-visual history. Inside the building contains the world's largest collection of film, video and sound. What is this building? It's the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Va.
In addition to the historical collection, the campus also houses the copyright office. So between the 30,000 items Packard receives for copyright each year, and the numerous materials sent as donations, the facility houses 1.2-million moving-image items, and more than 3 million sound recordings.
The original facility was owned by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. It was built in the 1970s to store coin and currency, which would restart the U.S. economy east of the Mississippi in the event of a nuclear war.
Mike Mashon, who heads up the moving-image division of Packard, says David Woodley Packard, the philanthropist son of Hewlett-Packard's cofounder, purchased the facility in 1997. His idea was to convert "it for storage for the moving image and sound recording collections, along with some preservation laboratories."
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.
Keeping history alive
The 124 vaults are kept at a chilly 39 degrees, to preserve the nearly 190,000 canisters of nitrate film contained therein. Mashon says the vaults are so small because "should a fire event occur, you might lose an entire vault. But you wouldn't lose your entire collection."
Nitrate film was all the rage until 1951, when cellulose 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.
"Film history is full of sad stories of nitrate collections that were lost because of fire," Mashon says. " A lot of Swedish film history was lost because the nitrate caught on fire; it was bombed during World War II."
And as recently as 1978, a fire at the National Archives in Suitland, Md., obliterated 12 million feet of film.
"When the fire department showed up, in order to release pressure in the building, they opened up the vault doors," says Mashon, "which allowed the fire to spread from vault to vault to vault, which is exactly what you're not supposed to do."
Mashon says they fear fire much more than they fear water. Another thing they fear at the Packard Campus, he says, is time. Many of the video and audio recordings they've collected have a shelf life. That's why it's so important to get all this stuff catalogued and preserved.
"We're not preserving it for the sake of preserving it," he says. "We want people to be able to hear and see what's gone before."
Because then, he adds, not only might we figure out who we were, and who we are, but maybe, just maybe, who we might become.
Following are original recordings, care of the Library of Congress:
Marian Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial: Apr. 9, 1939
Eleanor Roosevelt’s radio address: Dec. 7, 1941
“Traffic Tips to Fight Fans”: June 22, 1938 (aired before the Louis-Schmeling match on NBC Radio)
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech: Dec. 8, 1941
[Music: "Memories of You" by Benny Goodman Orchestra from The Big Band Era Vol. 2]
Photos: Packard Campus