Washington, DC Chapter

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Neither Digital Nor Virtual: A Visit to the LC’s Packard Campus In Real Life

Neither Digital Nor Virtual: A Visit to the LC’s Packard Campus In Real Life

By Carol Abrams

Carol Abrams is earning her MIS degree at the University of Tennessee.

The Radio Preservation Task Force Conference came to DC this February, and one of their pre-conference site visits was to the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation. I joined the visit and saw the 420,000 square-foot campus in Culpepper, Virginia first-hand.

The Packard Campus provides tours of the facility to library-related groups by pre-arrangement. Otherwise, its vaults and preservation facilities are closed to the public. Library patrons access AV material in the LC’s Madison Building in the District from either the Recorded Sound Records Center or the Motion Picture and Television Reading Room. The LC transmits material from Culpepper to the Madison Building via fiber optic cable to satisfy researchers’ requests.

Only one part of the Packard Campus is open to the public. The facility’s 205-seat Art Deco-style theater offers free film, video, and television screenings to the public three times a week.

There are plenty of reasons why DC-area SLA members would want to see the Packard Campus and those revolve around its state-of-the-art facility, its collections, and its technical expertise. The Packard Campus opened in 2007 and stores the Library’s audio and moving image collection. As you would imagine, the Library holds the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of audio-visual works, over 6.2 million moving images, sound recordings and related documents.

In 1893 Thomas Edison deposited Edison Kinetoscopic Records for copyright, thus starting the LC’s film collection. However, the nitrate film was highly flammable, so instead of storing it, the Library retained only the descriptive material relating to the motion picture. From 1912-1929 only 30% of silent feature films survived because the LC sent the films back to the studios.

Fast forward to 1951. Eastman Kodak changed to acetate film stock, which was less flammable, but had its own set of preservation challenges. This material releases acetic acid, the key ingredient in vinegar, so the film often takes on the smell of vinegar when acetic acid eats away at the film base. Its deterioration has the magnificent name “vinegar syndrome.”

LC Packard Campus (1)Mike Mashon, head of the Moving Image Section of the Library of Congress, shared these facts with us as he led us through the vaults. He pointed out the camera negatives of the original Three Stooges films and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington along with the personal collections of Mary Pickford and Thomas Edison.

The Recorded Sound section curator, Matt Barton, was our next guide. One of the oldies he shared with us was an 1891 Edison brown wax cylinder of the American Republic March by Patrick S. Gilmore’s band, John Philip Sousa’s inspiration and employer. Another was a sound effects record made for radio dramas that captured teletype and linotype machines and other authentic sounds of the past that one doesn’t hear anymore.

Like all true collectors, Barton loves the hunt for hidden gems. In his world, these gems are niche collections that fill in gaps in or otherwise enhance the LC’s holdings. One of his recent additions was the record collection from “Nights in Latin America,” a New York-area radio show broadcast from 1948 to 1971, that included music made by South American artists as well as Hispanic artists living in New York.

Most of us know in the abstract that the LC is the custodian of moving images and recorded sound.  The “behind-the-scenes” look at the Packard Campus lets us see the passion of the staff doing the work. Campus visits are offered only to those of us in the library field by pre-arrangement. I suggest planning a visit.

[Photo of Packard Campus: “Packard Campus,” calamity_sal. CC BY 2.0.]

[Photo of Colombia Pictures sign: Carol Abrams]

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