The Nuclear Bunker Where America Preserves Its Audio-Visual Heritage

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The Library of Congress has over 160 million items in its collection, including 23 million books, and more than 1.1 million films, and television programs ranging from motion pictures made in the 1890s to today's TV programs. It has the original camera negatives of 1903’s The Great Train Robbery and Victor Fleming’s Gone With The Wind. It even has all the sequels of Scary Movie and modern hit TV shows such as Judge Judy. The library also holds nearly 3.5 million audio recordings of public radio broadcasts and music, representing over a hundred years of sound recording history. It has films and audio on nearly all formats, from cylinders to magnetic tapes to CDs. It’s the Noah’s Ark of the creative history of the United States.

Most of the library’s audio and video collections are stored in a Cold War bunker at the foothills of Blue Ridge Mountains in Culpeper, Virginia. Known as the Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, it is the Library of Congress's latest audiovisual archive storage facility.

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The Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center. Photo credit: Rien van Rijthoven

The Packard Campus was originally built in 1969 as a high-security storage facility where the Federal Reserve Board stored $3 billion in cash, so that it could replenish the cash supply east of the Mississippi River in the event of a catastrophic war with the Soviet Union. Like most nuclear bunkers built during the Cold War period, the radiation-hardened Packard Campus was constructed of steel-reinforced concrete one foot thick, had lead-lined shutters and was surrounded dirt strips and barbed-wire fences. The bunker could also house up to 540 people for a month. It had beds and freeze-dried food, an incinerator, indoor pistol range, a helicopter landing pad and a cold-storage area for bodies awaiting burial in case radiation levels were too high to go outside.

After the Cold War ended, the bunker was decommissioned and sat abandoned for four years before it was purchased by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation on behalf of the Library of Congress. Nearly $240 million was spent transforming the bunker into a state-of-the-art storage facility with more than 90 miles of shelving for collections storage, 35 climate controlled vaults for sound recording, safety film, and videotape, and 124 nitrate film vaults.

The facility houses 6.3 million collection items including all video and audio, as well as 2.1 million supporting scripts, posters, photos, etc. Its digital archive exceeds 1 million gigabytes. An astounding 22,000 new items published in the U.S. arrive every day at the Library, out of which an average of 10,000 items are added per day.

The Packard Campus regularly holds (nearly everyday) screenings of films of cultural significance in its 206 seat theater, which is open to the public.

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Photo credit: www.greenroofs.com

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Storage vaults at Packard Campus. Photo credit: Rien van Rijthoven

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Vintage media equipment at Packard Campus. Photo credit: Leslie Johnston/Flickr

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Vintage media equipment at Packard Campus. Photo credit: Leslie Johnston/Flickr

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The theater where public screenings take place. Photo credit: Rien van Rijthoven

Sources: www.loc.gov / Wikipedia / www.aoc.gov / Wired / Washingtonian

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