Last Friday I had the privilege to tour the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia. This ex-cold-war-era-nuclear-shelter-turned-film-vault is part of the Library of Congress, and they do some really incredible work! Together, the other Junior Fellows and I were able to learn about recorded video and sound and all of the work it takes to preserve our films and tapes for future generations.
First we took a look at recorded sound. The NAVCC has a massive collection of audio material, including (but not limited to) wax cylinders, wire recordings, every size record imaginable, tapes, and endless digital files. Depending on the condition of an item, the Library may decide to digitize it, to painstakingly restore it, or meet somewhere in the middle. The types of recordings they handle also covers a wide range, from radio broadcasts, to released music, to oral histories and interviews. And that’s not all! The NAVCC also has a great show-room of collected historical microphones, speakers, phonographs, record players, you name it. There was nothing that we saw that was unimpressive – all of it blew me away!
Next we saw a tour of their recorded video services. Just as the recorded sound division covered a wide range of formats, so does the video! NAVCC protects, revitalizes, preserves, and digitizes every type of film and digital content imaginable. We got to meet the digitizing robotic storage machines which live right next door to film duplication machines which lives next to the film scanner – all ways of elongating the lifetime of a video. Also like the audio division, the visual departments covers a wide range of content, from news broadcasts, to television, to home video, to movies. In fact, due to the delicate nature of the earliest films, NAVCC is home to many, many film and studio master’s tapes/reels, which we got to go and see!
If you were wondering why the A/V branch of the Library of Congress is in the middle of nowhere, it is because of what was already there. During the Cold War, the US Federal Reserve built a state-of-the-art nuclear bomb shelter where they stored enough currency to restart the economy should a nuclear disaster occur. After a couple of decades, the building went out of use and in the late 90’s-early 00’s the Library bought the bunker and, through a large private donation, built the surrounding campus. Now the bunker is home to the many vaults which stores the most fragile films. It was these vaults that we got to tour – it was mind-blowing!
I am excited to continue to follow the great work that happens out in Culpeper, and am so thankful to have been able to see the campus. I feel inspired now to be on the lookout for historic recordings – so remember to take a look in your attic, and check the rarity of your tapes and films before throwing them out!