Center’s vaults preserve a collection of cultural treasures

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Print this page by Richard Foster
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The facility was built to shelter top officials and safeguard
billions in U.S. currency. Courtesy Library of Congress

Nestled into the side of a small mountain in Culpeper lies a half-moon-shaped, 45-acre campus of laboratories partially overgrown with ivy, like the set of a post-apocalyptic thriller. Adding to the complex’s ambience are its sprawling levels of underground doomsday vaults.

Once owned by the Federal Reserve, the Cold War-era underground facility was built to shelter top federal officials and safeguard billions of dollars in U.S. currency in the event of a nuclear war. These days, as part of the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, the vaults secure a cultural treasure trove.

Marking its 10th anniversary this year, the 415,000-square-foot center is home to the library’s voluminous film, video and audio archives — the largest such collection in the world. Its climate-controlled vaults and more than 90 miles of underground shelving protect more than 4.6 million works of art.

“We could drop you at one end and lose you for a week,” says David Critics, the center’s administration officer. The collection ranges from 1880s wax-cylinder recordings to Thomas Edison’s first 1891 celluloid film tests to the latest blockbuster movies and hit songs, which are registered with the library for copyright purposes.

More than just storage space, though, the center’s preservation labs rescue and restore old recordings. Pre-1951 nitrate films are extremely flammable, for instance, and the late 20th-century “safety film” format chemically degrades. The center digitizes content around the clock and is also one of the few labs in the world to make new prints of old films. One of the center’s most recent projects is the restoration and digitization of a donated original print of Edison’s 1910 “Frankenstein” silent film.

Though not open to the public as a library (researchers must request items from the library in Washington, D.C.), the center does hold events such as film screenings, concerts, live re-creations of old-time radio shows and an annual open house.
Its film and video collection, which includes oddities such as the late Jerry Lewis’ infamous unfinished Holocaust film “The Day the Clown Cried” (embargoed from public view until 2025) is so large that two-thirds of it remains virtually uncatalogued. The large backlog means that library researchers find “lost” films “pretty much every day,” says Mike Mashon, head of the facility’s moving image section.

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