AMONG VARIOUS EFFORTS to preserve the cultural output of western civilization, the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus stands out. This facility, partially underground in the Virginia countryside, contains millions of movies, TV episodes, and audio recordings on every conceivable recording format. The process of preserving them in their original form, and digitizing them for the future at the highest quality possible, is taking place at a site whose past is nearly as interesting as its future. This was the former electronic node for America’s financial infrastructure, the Federal Reserve Bank’s biggest bunker, once known as the Culpeper Switch. It is now the National Audio Visual Conservation Center.
The Culpeper facility started out as a three-level underground building built by the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department in 1969 to house the hub of their nationwide communications network, and to store a staggering $241 billion in cash (including rows of palletized $2 bills), which would be used to jump start the economy after a nuclear attack. The site also served as a continuity of government facility, with a regular staff of 100 on hand to care for selected government officials who would flee to it in the event of nuclear war. With changes in technology, the development of new facilities, and a decrease in the perceived need for nuclear-attack proof bunkers, the Fed, which by then had a number of bunkers around the country, declared this site surplus in 1993. It was listed on the open market for a time, before being purchased and repurposed for the Library of Congress.
Knowledge, as they say, is power, and the Library of Congress is generally considered to be the largest library in the world, with over 150 million items, on hundreds of miles of shelving, in several buildings and storage areas in and around Washington DC, including this one at Culpeper, Virginia, 60 miles away.
The Library of Congress, started in 1800 as a reference library for policymakers, was initially housed in the U.S. Capitol building. After the British burned the Capitol in 1814, the library was started again with the purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s personal library of 6,847 books. As it grew, new buildings were added, starting in 1897 with the Jefferson Building, then the Adams Building (1938), and the Madison Building (1981), massive edifices next to one another, located prominently behind the U.S. Capitol Building.
The library has already outgrown these structures, and it is doubtful that another library building will be made around the Capitol. The future is in storage, and digitization. Its main off-site storage facilities are the Book Storage Module buildings at Fort Meade, Maryland (also home of the nation’s largest data processor, the NSA), where in coming years, as many as 50 million items will be stored in more than a dozen structures.
While the bulk of the library is books, audio-visual material has been collected all along as well. Since inclusion in the Library of Congress is one of the methods for establishing copyright for any kind of published material, it has been routine to send copies of new books, movies, TV shows, and audio recordings to the library on their release. The library has more than five million audio-visual recordings, and most of them are being consolidated at the converted Federal Reserve site in Culpeper, Virginia, officially known as the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, also known as the Packard Campus.
The Packard Campus is the product of the vision of David W. Packard, whose wealth comes from his father’s Hewlett Packard computer company, and whose interest in old Hollywood movies has been evident since at least 1987, when he restored and re-opened a movie theater dedicated to screening classic films, in Palo Alto. Packard bought the former Federal property at Culpeper which was being offered on the open market, in 1997, with an initial $5.5 million from the family foundation, in order to give it to the Library of Congress. After ten years, and an additional $250 million or so, most of it coming from Packard’s Humanities Institute, the National Audio Visual Conservation Center opened in 2007.
A TOUR THROUGH THE PACKARD CAMPUS
The Conservation Building
Three connected buildings make up the campus: two underground storage buildings connected to the above-ground conservation building in the middle. The conservation building is the largest structure, 175,000 square feet on three floors, and houses administration, preservation, and conservation functions of the campus. Inside are the offices, labs, processing facilities, and other work spaces where the staff of around 110 people work.
Just off the lobby is a theater, with near-perfect projection and audio equipment, where films are screened for the public, twice a week. Though it seats only a couple hundred, the theater is equipped to show 16, 35, and 70mm films, and is one of only five theaters in the country permitted to screen nitrate films, the flammable film medium used for most early films, which caused many movie-house fires before it was replaced in the late 1940s. The theater was designed by Mr. Packard to resemble the theater of his youth in the Silicon Valley.
The bulk of the audio-visual material archived here was shipped to Culpeper from storage sites all over the country before it opened in 2007. Now around 150,000 new items arrive every year. The majority of its holdings are audio recordings–on tape, wax discs, vinyl LPs, and every other conceivable format. The rest is motion pictures, television, and other types of video, on tapes, film, and digital hard drives. The library even collects video games in every conceivable format as well.
While the Library of Congress is interested in having a copy of any published audio-visual material shown or produced in the United States, not every audio-visual item sent to the Library of Congress finds its way to Culpeper. Unsolicited material is screened at processing sites elsewhere, and is forwarded on to Culpeper only if it is desired, and non-redundant.
The third floor of the main building has the most elaborate equipment, used for both sound and video. This is where analog to digital transfers take place, in finely tuned, sonically isolated rooms, and where racks of specialized digitization equipment crunches away at streams of analog (and digital) input. On the analog side, 35mm motion picture film duplication and processing takes place on this floor, and batteries of the full-spectrum of consumer and commercial audio and videotape players are used to dump their content into digital formats.
The third floor’s Technical Operations Center is where most of the digital video recording takes place. A system known as the Semi Automatic Migration of Assets employs things like robotic videotape-loading mechanisms that select and load tapes into stacks of rack-mounted players for high-speed through-put dubbing and digitization employing JPEG 2000 compression.
Not everything here is about converting signals from analog to digital. Some material comes in digital form, on DVD, master tapes, and hard drives. Another born digital process for capturing program content is the live capture process, where equipment is being set up to capture 120 streams of broadcast television, mostly satellite television from Direct TV and Dish Network, which will be continuously recorded for permanent digital storage in the deep archive. Radio programs from 42 internet stations, 10 FM stations, and the XM/Sirius satellite radio network will also be captured on a system using 72 Mac-minis.
The Underground Vaults
While the conservation building houses the processing functions of the Packard Campus, the two underground storage buildings that flank the main building, one on the east, and one on the west, contain the physical archives of audio and video material. The west side is the main collections, and the east is the nitrate film vault.
The nitrate film vault is a 55,000 square-foot structure, built new for this purpose, and intentionally isolated from everything else because of the volatility of nitrate film. Nitrate film was the primary flexible film base for motion pictures, used from the late 1800s to 1951, when it was replaced with acetate safety film in the USA. It is composed of nitrocellulose, which is very flammable, and more so as it degenerates. Numerous disastrous fires in movie houses occurred over this period, and a number of film archives have burned and lost some of their contents (including the Eastman House and the National Archives). It is estimated that more than 75% of the early silent films produced in the USA, all of which were printed on nitrate film stock, have been lost.
This is the largest nitrate film vault in the nation, and one of only a few, including the Museum of Modern Art’s Film Preservation Center, in Hamlin, Pennsylvania; the George Eastman House’s vault at the Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center, in upstate New York; and one at UCLA, being built by Packard. Prior to coming to this location, all of the Library of Congress’ nitrate films were kept at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
The other vault area, where all of the non-nitrate films, tapes, and other files are kept, is known as the Collections Building, a three-level underground structure on the west side of the main Conservation and Administration building. This structure was the original Federal Reserve Bank bunker, in use until 1992. When construction for the Packard Campus began, the entire old building was gutted, and even the soil cover above it was removed, exposing the concrete, in order to seal it better from moisture penetration. The machine gun turret at the top was removed, as was the security bunker at the entrance. The concrete slabs and pillars are all that remain from the original building.
The Collections Building uses all the 135,000 square feet of the original building’s three levels, plus a bit more for mechanical space at the top. It contains 34 vaults on two floors. The first floor is taken up by room sized vaults for film and video storage. The second floor of the Collections Building is for storing sound recordings, and is kept at 50 degrees and 35% humidity. It has more than a dozen room-sized vaults for every material in every conceivable audio format, including audio-cassettes, wax cylinders, and even 19th century copper discs. One long room of shelving is possibly the largest LP collection on earth.
The top floor of the Collections Building, where the former dormitories for the Continuity of Government and the staff of the Federal Reserve technicians and security teams used to be, is still undeveloped space used for storage. The floor has possible weight capacity problems and may not be able to bear the load once converted to archive space with high-density shelving. This matter is being assessed, and the outcome will affect the ultimate capacity of the archives. Culpeper was expected to reach full capacity over the first 25 years of its existence, and it is now eight years old. Capacity will be reached a few years earlier if the third floor cannot be fully developed.
The original Culpeper bunker was built on the slope on Mount Pony, the highest elevation in the county (a hill that was historically used as a signal station as far back as the Civil War), on the southwest side, facing away from Washington DC, to protect the bunker from the blast effects of a nuclear attack on the Capitol. Though the allure of features like this provided the attraction that got the conservation center going in the mind of its benefactor, David Packard, the real value of having a portion of the Center underground is debatable. It is likely that it would have been cheaper to start from scratch, than to convert the existing facilities.
But the heritage of the place, as an early computer node for a nationwide electronic communication network, is not entirely without practical benefits, as well as symbolic ones. The Federal Reserve communication system was a 40,000 mile network, stringing the reserve banks of the nation together. Every single check cashed in the USA, and every other electronic transfer of funds or securities between banks, was conveyed on this system. These wires were the veins of the nation’s economy, and Culpeper was its heart.
These wires became corridors as the communications infrastructure of the nation expanded, and the region around Culpeper is full of other government and civilian communication network sites, from the Cold War and now. The corridors left by Culpeper’s former use have been repurposed, and are now used to send streaming audio and video programs, housed on the campus’ servers, to the library’s listening rooms in Washington DC. Culpeper, built with its back to the nation’s Capitol, now faces it head on, taking our collected past into the future.