Go behind the scenes at the world’s largest collection of film, video, and sound recordings at the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation, located in Culpeper, Virginia. It’s home to over 1.4 million individual reels of film and videotapes and 3.5 million sound records. The preservation laboratories are responsible for making sure that these will be available to future generations, meaning lots of content for binge-watching!

Love a good classic movie, like Casablanca? It’s housed here. If you’ve ever copyrighted a work of media, it’s likely housed here, too. That’s how this campus gets much of the content it preserves.

Preservation at the Library of Congress

I went inside the chilly nitrate vaults where they store film stock used in Hollywood before 1951. The base of nitrate film is nitrate cellulose. Which is a cousin to guncotton, so it’s very flammable, and it’s also precious! Here, the original camera negatives from Warner Brothers of all those Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Betty Davis films, and Three Stooges are housed. 

Also, the original camera negatives for an experimental Thomas Edison film dating back to 1891 are stored here. If the zombie apocalypse occurs, I’m thinking that this facility could be a pretty entertaining place to be. Which isn’t unreasonable, since the Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center is actually housed in what used to be a US Federal Reserve bomb and radiation-proof bunker. Where, during the cold war housed several billion dollars, enough money to replenish the US economy east of the Mississippi during a catastrophic event. So, most of the Campus’s 415,000 square feet of usable space is located underground. 

The Library of Congress Packard Campus is also responsible for preserving the machines that preserve the audio-visual content. This requires a lot of maintenance and specialty knowledge. Antique formats and their antique players are kept alive here by preservationists with a unique set of skills. These are sometimes learned on the job because they aren’t taught anywhere else. 

Screening a movie in the art deco theatre
Screening a movie in the art deco theatre

Screening at the theater

Inside the 205 seat onsite art deco theatre, Mike and I sat down to screen a movie. A projectionist hand threaded 35-millimeter polyester film. With most theatres having converted to digital within the past decade, the Library of Congress is one of the few theatres left that’s actually running 35-millimeter on a regular basis. The theater opens its doors several times a week for free public screenings. The theater shows rare silent movies and other blockbusters and classics and giving visitors a taste of the past with thoughts to the future.

So next time you’re in the area, look online to see if you can catch a flick. It’s a cool opportunity for a look at the past and the importance of preserving art for future generations.

Watch this episode on Ovation TV’s Journy and more of the Travels with Darley series on PBS and Amazon Prime.