Archivists have place of their own to save past


MOUNT PONY, Va. -- The blast doors that were to be closed in case of a nuclear attack are gone. The transformation from Cold War holdout to cold storage is nearly complete as the building that was to house members of the Federal Reserve board in case of nuclear holocaust is now occupied by Library of Congress archivists caring for the world's biggest collection of movies, TV shows and sound recordings.

If a civilization is truly to be judged by its libraries and museums, then the 415,000-square-foot archive about 75 miles from the Capitol makes a pretty decent statement for the nation and the uniquely American impact on recorded media.

"Movies, television and sound recordings are the people's art forms," said Mike Mashon, head of the library's moving image section. "They tell us who we were, who we are and perhaps where we're going."

Not having the dedication to preserve the past consigns our heritage to an unsure fate, Mashon added.

"We have embraced the history, glamour and storytelling splendor of moviemaking while ignoring the reality that films are physical artifacts that can shrink, fade and disintegrate into dust in less than a lifetime," he said.

From the outside, the building -- most of which is buried in the side of the mountain -- has a Hanging Gardens of Babylon effect. Gone are the early 1960s furnishings and post-doomsday decor designed to see the central bank through a nuclear winter. In its place are the archivists workstations, film restoration machinery and state-of-the art vaults that will protect the library's inventory that include its priceless collection of nitrate films.

The archive brings together in one place for the first time the library's 6 million items that have been scattered in facilities in four states and the District of Columbia, sets up state-of-the-art preservation labs and is designed to give researchers and the public access to the vast collection.

Embracing history isn't cheap. The Packard Humanities Institute, largely at the behest of early film enthusiast David W. Packard, provided $155 million for land acquisition and design and construction costs. This year, the foundation donated the facility in late July to the government. It was the largest-ever private gift to the U.S. legislative branch and one of the largest ever to the federal government.

Congress authorized purchase of the property by the institute and since 2001 has provided $82.1 million in startup funding.

Packard, a former classics professor at the University of North Carolina and the son of Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard, became enamored of classic Hollywood films after seeing "The Wizard of Oz" and "Meet Me in St. Louis." He moved back to California and became a driving force in film preservation and other cultural causes. He has funneled millions of dollars into such archives as the Library of Congress, the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the George Eastman House.

Packard helped oversee the details at the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation that was designed by Earl Wilson of the San Francisco-based BAR Architects and Hal Davis of Washington's SmithGroup Inc. Packard paid special attention to ensuring that the archivists had a decent work space and that the building's theater would realistically mimic the experience movie patrons had during Hollywood's golden age.

"The Library of Congress Packard Campus is not only a remarkable gift to the American people but also an enduring promise that our nation's creative patrimony will be preserved for today and tomorrow," Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said when the library took over the building in July.

While Packard has been a godsend for film preservation efforts, he doesn't want the facility that bears his name to become a private Xanadu for archivists. During the ceremony where Packard signed over the facility, he urged Congress to develop more ways so that ordinary people can access the archive.

"The great potential of digital technology has made it urgent, however, for Congress to review the legal framework in which libraries conserve their collections and provide public access to copyrighted items," he said. "We strongly support continued efforts by the Library of Congress to develop practical mechanisms for providing broader access for researchers, students and the public outside of Washington to audiovisual materials in the library's extraordinary collections."

Mashon said the library intends to make as much material available as technology and copyright law will allow, giving public access to the library's audiovisual holdings via electronic transmissions to the reading rooms on Capitol Hill and through curated online exhibits, regular theatrical screenings, festivals, symposia and events open to the public for free, Mashon said.

But the library doesn't want to stop there.

"We can send any digital content we want back to the D.C. reading rooms but will be looking immediately to make rights-free material online as soon as possible and in high-quality downloads," Mashon said. "Looking ahead, we'd like to establish access partnerships with archives and educational institutions around the county and then the world so that anything we digitize here is also available there."

Archivists at the Packard Campus will be able to preserve between two and four times as many films, sound recordings, television shows and other ephemera.

The facility features new conservation technologies and processes, many of which were created specifically for the Library of Congress. A technology known as IRENE (image, reconstruct, erase noise, etc.) will create digital audio files by taking high-resolution images of fragile or damaged grooved media like the earliest phonograph records.

A robotic system called SAMMA (system for the automated migration of media assets) will automatically create preservation-quality digital files from cassette-based media.

It is expected that the Packard Campus will produce about 2 petabytes of digital content in its first year, increasing to an annual rate of 3-5 petabytes when additional, planned systems are brought online. If you were to store two petabytes of data on CD-ROMs, each holding 700MB, you would have a stack of discs reaching abut 2 1/4 miles into the sky.

All this preservation is designed to aide in the preservation not just of film, but the thousands of hours of sound and TV produced each year.

"The stuff comes in faster than we can deal with," said Allan D. McConnell Jr., the library's head audio and visual preservation, who estimated that the library would have to deal with a terabyte a day.

While film is still film, TV producers went from 2-inch tape to 1-inch tape to a half-dozen tape formats to digital. Television preservation has to deal with old formats and, eventually, the new high-definition formats. Archivists always are in a race with time, and increasingly with technology as McConnell finds himself dealing with old Ampex formats and video from shows like "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In."

"That show was cut with a razor blade," he said. "I think it was the last network show that was hand cut."

While McConnell's dilemma might seem to unique to television, it is something with which all archivists struggle.

"Preservation is sort of like 'Back to the Future,' " said Steve Leggett, staff coordinator for the National Film Preservation Board. "If you want things to be right 30 years from now, you must store and preserve them properly now. To accomplish this, Library of Congress will use state of the art equipment and preservation tools, but also retrofitted, vintage machines from past eras. DeLoreans, so to speak."

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