Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation

BY DARREN WEINERT

Monday and Tuesday (17 and 18 May) I spent at the Library of Congress, Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Virginia.

The majority of this complex is hidden underground and houses 6.3 million collection items; 1.2 million moving image, 3 million recorded sound and 2.1 million supporting documents such as scripts, posters and photos. The building site was originally used by the US Federal Reserve Bank Center and after an extensive rebuild was officially opened by the Library of Congress in 2007.

Nitrate Vault Leader, George Willeman, inspecting a reel of nitrate film. A badly decomposed reel can be seen on the table in the foreground.

On Monday I took a tour of the facility with the students of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School which included the nitrate film vaults.

The Packard Campus has 124 nitrate film vaults housing over 145,066 nitrate film cans.  Due to the highly volatile nature of nitrate film these vaults incorporate a number of safety measures to greatly reduce the chances of film combusting and to prevent further loss to the collection should the worst occur.  A water sprinkler system is in place, not so much to extinguish a fire, but to also prevent flames from spreading to other areas within the vault. This system produces a wall of water over the nitrate film storage shelves to contain any such occurrence.

While visiting the nitrate vaults, George Willeman, Nitrate Vault Leader, produced a reel of film from a donation that had recently arrived.  George was in the early stages of identification and condition reporting and, given the background information of the donated collection it originated from, suspected that one of the reels may be a missing film, featuring the Hollywood actress, Theda Bara.

At first glance the film appeared to be well past any salvageable use, but when slowly unwound it revealed hidden frames that contained images that will be able to be captured and preserved. I am still to discover if it contains images of Theda Bara.