George Willeman held in his hands a mystery on film. It had been sent to him in a beat-up, rusted canister by a colleague who had gotten it from a Canadian film archaeologist. Like most films Willeman gets, this one was old. Ancient by movie-industry standards.
It seemed to start in the middle—there were no opening credits. No name, no recognizable actors. But Willeman, a film archivist, knew the reel was important. It was a silent movie shot in color, making it one of the oldest color films ever made, predating 1939’s The Wizard of Oz by at least a decade.
Willeman works at the Library of Congress’s Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation—Packard for short. The campus, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, houses 90 miles of shelves, 35 climate-controlled storage units, and 124 nitrate vaults built for the long-term safekeeping of the world’s largest collection of films, television programs, radio broadcasts, and sound recordings. Every movie, every TV show, every record you can think of is kept within its underground hallways, fluorescent-lit cement tunnels as long as football fields.
The Packard campus houses silent films that have been restored from grainy nothingness. It has Gone With the Wind and the rest of the classics. It has films on obscure, 19th-century formats, some of which are the last in existence.
It also has Scary Movie 4 and its predecessors. It gets copies of almost every movie that hits the theaters—good, bad, and awful—and the ones that go straight to DVD, too. It has video games and commercials and reality TV. It has Judge Judy. Soon it’ll have those YouTube videos of the toddler feeling disoriented from nitrous oxide and of the guys in lab coats who put Mentos in Diet Coke bottles.
But the most important piece to George Willeman right then was the riddle in the rusted canister. The film’s plot was about the Civil War, and he estimated it was made in the late 1920s. The fact that it was in color meant the filmmakers had put some money into it and most likely filed a copyright. He contacted the library’s reference office on Capitol Hill and searched through copyright forms for films that might fit the description. One did.
The Heart of General Robert E. Lee had been thought lost for almost a century. Now it was in Willeman’s hands. But the discovery raised another question: This reel was the second half of the film. Where was the first?
Seventy miles southwest of DC in Culpeper, the Packard building’s glass walls emit a glow. Gregory Lukow, chief of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting & Recorded Sound Division, stands outside, pointing out the facility’s features on a map.
“Underneath this ridge is our collections storage,” he says. “Over here are the nitrate vaults. And this circular point up here was where they kept the turret.”
“Yes, the turret. Where the soldiers planted their machine gun.”
The Packard campus was built in 1969 as a Cold War apocalypse bunker. It had lead-lined shutters, barbed-wire fences, and a machine-gun turret. The Federal Reserve stored $3 billion within its radiation-proof walls. In the event of a catastrophic Soviet strike, the money was to be used to replenish the currency supply east of the Mississippi River.
Until 1992, the bunker also was an emergency continuity-of-government facility, designed to house up to 540 people for 30 days after a nuclear attack. Along with beds and freeze-dried food, it had an 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.
The bunker was decommissioned in 1993 and sat abandoned for four years. During that time, the Library of Congress was facing a storage crisis. The audiovisual collections were spread across three Capitol Hill buildings, two facilities in Virginia and Maryland, an Air Force base in Ohio, and a rented storage center in Pennsylvania.
Lukow’s predecessor, David Francis, heard about the empty bunker in Culpeper and saw a chance to consolidate the audiovisual collection under one roof. It was an opportunity to start fresh. The methods of conservation were changing, and here was a chance to create a collection that could last for centuries. All the library needed was money.
Next: Packard holds 1.3 million videos and more than 3 million audio recordings.