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Beyond the Dome: Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center

Nitrate vault at the Library of Congress Packard Campus

Erin Nelson, AOC Communications and Congressional Relations staff, ventures outside the U.S. Capitol to explore the other buildings under the AOC's care. First up, she visits the Packard Campus in Culpeper, Virginia.

The Architect of the Capitol (AOC) is responsible for managing all of the buildings and grounds on Capitol Hill, but it also maintains several facilities across the National Capital Region. One such facility is the Library of Congress Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, located 80 miles away from the Capitol in Culpeper, Virginia. I recently had the privilege to peak inside this fascinating facility.

The Packard Campus was completed in 1969 and is built into the side of Mount Pony, the highest slope in Culpeper County. It served as a high security office and storage facility for the Federal Reserve.

The Packard Campus is the nation’s premiere storage and preservation facility for audio, visual and recorded sound. It’s divided into three sections — collections, conservation and nitrate vaults. It is home to 140,000 reels of film, including a reel dating back to 1891, originally owned by Thomas Edison.

I found the nitrate vaults (pictured above) particularly interesting. Nitrate base film was used in the industry until the early 1950s, so many classics were originally captured on nitrate film. It is highly flammable and given the right conditions, can burst into flames spontaneously – so it must be stored with extreme care. Each vault containing nitrate film has been fitted with individual sprinkler systems, and every aspect of the vaults was made to accommodate the film’s hazardous features, from the height of the shelves to the fire and ventilation systems.

The Packard Campus opens its doors to share films of the past with the public on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. The screenings take place on the first floor of the building in a theater which seats 200. The shows are free to the public, but reservations are strongly encouraged. Different movies are shown each night and the schedule changes monthly. Occasionally the theater shows silent movies, and an organ rises from below the stage to accompany the movie’s silence with music. Show times, reservation details and the film screening schedule are available online.

Sharing classics of the past with future generations is made possible by the intricate preservation work conducted by the Library of Congress at this facility. The preservation of film is quite complicated – it requires unique processes, specialized water, and a host of chemicals and machines. The AOC plays its part by managing the building’s infrastructure, which is elaborate given the variety of jobs that are performed within its walls. The AOC is also responsible for maintaining the facility’s garden and green roofs, as well as 9,000 trees and 200,000 individual plants.

While the historic preservation of our many important American buildings, including the Capitol, is core to the work of the AOC – we are also proud to play an important role in supporting this cultural preservation of American history inside the Library of Congress. 

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