- - Friday, August 3, 2018

CULPEPER, Va. — The machine gunners who once operated it around the clock are gone and so is the gun turret, but this former nuclear-bomb-proof bunker is still protecting a hoard of riches underneath the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The stacks of billions of dollars in cash that were stored here during the Cold War have been replaced by vaults stuffed with film from the golden age of Hollywood.

Today, it’s officially known as the Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center — where the Library of Congress stores about 98.5 percent of the nation’s film-recorded treasures. This sprawling complex, built into a hillside in Culpeper, contains 90 miles of high-density, mobile compact shelving in its vaults.

Its 1-foot-thick, steel-reinforced concrete walls and lead-lined shutters originally were designed to protect pallets of shrink-wrapped cash that would replenish the U.S. currency supply east of the Mississippi River in the event of a nuclear holocaust. The facility also served as a “continuity of government” site that could support hundreds of emergency workers with bunks and freeze-dried food for about a month.

Operated by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, the facility was decommissioned in 1993 after 25 years of Cold War-era service. With Congress‘ approval, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation bought the 45-acre property in 1997. The Packard Humanities Institute, of Hewlett-Packard fame, spent $160 million to redesign and develop the vault facility and then donated the property to the Library of Congress in 2007.

“With the exception of the Smithsonian Institution, it’s the largest private-sector gift to the U.S. government in the history of the republic,” said Gregory Lukow, chief of the conservation center.

Mr. Lukow described the 415,000-square-foot facility as a “library and archive for the entire, now 128-year history of audiovisual material.”

So far, those archives have amounted to 9 petabytes of digital content. A petabyte is 1 million gigabytes and has the equivalent storage of 1.5 million CD-ROM discs, according to Livewire.com. To envision it another way, a full HD video recording running 24/7 for 3.4 years would require 1 petabyte of storage, as would saving more than 4,000 digital photos a day for your entire life.

The robotic library in the facility’s data center has a future capacity of 85 petabytes, with some 10,000 slots for 8.5 terabyte tapes.

“We’ve got a lot of headroom, a lot of growth space,” Mr. Lukow said.

Beyond its digital infrastructure, the Packard Campus houses the largest nitrate film collection in the country. It consists of original camera negatives — the film that was in the camera when the director was behind the lens — and includes nearly every film from the 1890s to 1951 made by Columbia Pictures, Warner Bros., Universal Studios and Walt Disney. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” “Pinocchio,” “Bambi” and “Dumbo” are all preserved on silver nitrate.

It’s all highly flammable, and “once a nitrate reel of film starts burning, there’s nothing you can do to put it out,” said Mr. Lukow.

The nitrate film constitutes just 1.5 percent of the collection, but the 140,000 reels of nitrate film take up an entire wing of 124 vaults to accommodate the safety measures required to store such flammable material.

“It creates its own oxygen, [so] you could dump it in a barrel of water and go away, have a cup of coffee, come back, take it out, and it’s still burning,” Mr. Lukow said.

The remaining 35 climate-controlled vaults contain more than 100 years of sound recording, safety film and videotape.

“In the ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s, video went wacky. There’s dozens of different formats. It’s insane,” Mr. Lukow said.

The 90 miles of shelving for collections storage reach back across “scores and scores of obsolete formats,” he said.

That includes some 3.6 million audio files.

“Audio was there first,” said Matt Barton, curator of recorded sound at the Packard Campus. “The history of recording is the history of formats.”

“Audiotape and videotape is basically rust glued to plastic, Mr. Lukow said. “It needs to be protected by the right kind of storage.”

The Library of Congress has just the place.

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