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Library of Congress gets gift of space

Three-building preservation facility donated

Looking for original camera negatives of Frank Capra’s movies? Or maybe the screenplays? How about the first 45 rpm record ever made? Or maybe you’ve wanted to see every episode of “The Ed Sullivan Show,” or hear everything FDR said to Congress following the attack on Pearl Harbor?

These and nearly 6 million other artifacts constituting the Library of Congress’ vast film and audio collection — the largest in the world — used to be dispersed in warehouses in five different locations.

Not any more, courtesy of a recent, unprecedented gift from the Packard Humanities Institute that’s just made the lives of many cultural researchers and historians a lot easier.

David Woodley Packard, PHI prexy and son of the co-founder of electronics giant Hewlett Packard, donated a new three-building, 45-acre, state-of-the-art preservation facility, whose construction his foundation underwrote for more than $150 million. The roughly 5.7 million moving images and sound recordings, including related material such as manuscripts and posters, were previously held in storage facilities in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Washington, D.C. They will now be housed together at the Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation — aka the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center — about an hour outside Washington in Virginia.

“The facility represents a revolution in access,” says Gene DeAnna, head of the Library of Congress’ recorded sound section. “It is preservation, yes, but preservation for access.”

Researchers requesting rare films or sound recordings used to request them at the library’s main branches in downtown D.C., then waited — usually days — for them to be transferred from the warehouse. Initial requests will continue to be made at the main branches, but waiting time will be reduced significantly.

A large part of the new facility’s mission is to make digital copies of early film and sound recordings that are already deteriorating. So far, the facility has converted about 55,000 gigabytes of material, but that’s a drop in the digital bucket, DeAnna says: The preservation effort will create upward of 2 million gigs per year, all eventually available via mouse click.

For nitrate films, widely used in early movies, the facility has 124 temperature- and humidity-controlled vaults. Included in the collection are “recognized Hollywood classics,” says Mike Mashon, head of the motion picture section, including “Jezebel” and “Casablanca.”

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