Culpeper Film Vault Offers Glimpse into American History

By: Tara Wheeler Email
By: Tara Wheeler Email

February 28, 2011

Some movie buffs call it the "Holy Grail of Film". Located an hour north of Charlottesville in Culpeper, the National Audiovisual Conservation Center is the film and sound archive for the Library of Congress.

Also known as the Packard Campus for Audiovisual Conservation, over 6 million American film, television and sound productions fill the nearly 90 miles of shelving. The center's 124 nitrate film vaults make it the largest nitrate film storage complex in the Western hemisphere. However, it's only a fraction of the total number of movies produced in the U.S. Director Patrick Loughney estimates up to 80% of early 20th century nitrate films have been lost forever due to fires and decay.

"America has produced more movies than the rest of the world combined, but in a way we have the worst preservation record of our own cultural history. I think we're just not a backward looking people; we look forward, we are way more about the future than the past," he explained.

From Charlie Chaplin to Audrey Hepburn and Molly Ringwald to Will Smith, theater has been at the center of American culture for over a century. That's why Loughney's center is focused on preserving America's visual culture. But to archive footage for future generations, scientists must utilize the obsolete machines once used to broadcast them.

"You have to have the machines to play the films back, and these machines haven't been made anywhere in the world for 50 years. So, you also become an equipment museum," Loughney joked.

Older mediums have a longer shelf life than today's advanced technology. For example, a CD will last only about 15 years, but a reel of nitrate film can be copied 100 years after it's produced. And that's exactly what goes on at the Conservation Center. Sound and film from every era are copied, restored and archived using the latest technology.

While there are miles of shelves containing millions of hours of footage waiting to be preserved, the Library of Congress isn't just archiving these glimpses into American history. It's also making sure anyone can see a classic film for free.

"We want people to know what we do here, so we offer free movies to the public about two or three nights a week," Loughney said.

You can view a complete schedule of free screenings on the Library of Congress website.

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