About an hour south of Washington, D.C., deep beneath rolling hills near the verdant Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, lies a storehouse filled with bounty.
At one time, during the Cold War, that treasure was cash — about $3-billion worth — that the Federal Reserve had socked away inside cinderblock bunkers built to keep an accessible, safe stash of funds in case of nuclear attack.
Now what’s buried here, however, is cultural rather than financial: The bunkers are a repository containing nearly 100 miles of shelves stacked with some 6 million items: reels of film; kinescopes; videotape and screenplays; magnetic audiotape; wax cylinders; shellac, metal and vinyl discs; wire recordings; paper piano rolls; photographs; manuscripts; and other materials. In short, a century’s worth of the nation’s musical and cinematic legacy.
This is the Library of Congress’ $250-million Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation, a 45-acre vault and state-of-the-art preservation and restoration facility on Virginia’s Mt. Pony. It’s here that a recent donation from Universal Music Group, nearly a quarter-million master recordings by musicians including Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby, is now permanently housed. Some staff members busy themselves daily cleaning and gluing fragile 100-year-old films back together; others meticulously vacuum dust from the grooves of ancient 78 rpm discs, which are washed before being transferred to digital files that can be accessed by scholars, musicologists, journalists, filmmakers, musicians and other visitors.
As part of the Library of Congress, this trove is available to anyone, free. But because of the complexities of copyright law, access is restricted to the library’s reading rooms in Washington and Culpeper. Library officials, however, are poised to unveil a new program that will significantly expand public access to a big chunk of the library’s goods, even if it won’t provide carte blanche availability to everything stored there. A news conference is scheduled for Tuesday to announce the details.
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