Library to store records, movies in Cold War vault

The Library of Congress will soon begin transporting thousands of 45 rpm vinyl records for digitization and preservation at an underground, Cold War-era facility.

The records will be the first of 2.7 million sound recordings and 1.1 million moving image items that the Library will move this year to consolidate holdings it had been storing in several states.

The Culpeper, Va., site, a former Federal Reserve building that is now called the National Audiovisual Conservation Center, will contain 57 miles of shelves for the Library's collection of movies, video and recorded sound.

Early next month, trucks will start moving 80,000 records, the Library's whole 45 rpm anthology, said Gene DeAnna, head of the Library’s recorded sound section. Logistics delayed the move, which officials had hoped to start last summer.

The Library is retrofitting the facility that was built in the 1960s and contained living quarters for staff and vaults for huge sums of cash. “The idea was to have enough money to jump-start the economy after an atomic attack,” DeAnna said.

By early 2007, Library officials expect to begin digitally preserving the audiovisual collections in an adjacent conservation building.

The center will store the Library's audio artifacts and digital doppelgangers so that researchers can quickly retrieve and play them via a secure internal network. The recordings have copyright protections that prohibit Internet broadcasts.

Library employees are arranging the physical collections in rows based on popularity, with the most highly requested songs and movies within easy reach.

Once the materials are safely in place, the center’s staff will be able to pull a record and deliver it to the audio preservation lab in the conservation building. Technical specialists will then digitize the audio as a high-resolution copy for preservation and a lower-resolution copy for Library users.

The conversion process can be lengthy. For example, the batch of recordings that ships next month contains oldies from the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s in single record format that technicians must individually play back and reformat. So when a researcher requests an album, the employee must first play the recording on a turntable connected to a computer and then send the file to the Library.

For compact discs, high-speed duplication is impossible. Cassette tapes copied at high speeds have lower sound quality, making high-speed duplication unacceptable for preservation. And the digitize-on-demand process means researchers may need to wait a day for their requests.

The Library is hoping an experimental machine that arrives this spring will speed the process.

If it works, the system will magnify the groove in the vinyl and optically read the record without playing it on a turntable. Particle physicists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory realized that an extremely high-resolution digital camera could take intricate photos of a record’s indentations. Because the vibration of the groove by a needle is what produces sound, experts say a close-up picture should allow preservationists to reproduce the needle’s movement along the groove without ever dropping a needle.

The Library has space for 10 to 15 years of growth at the center.

One private record collector disagrees with the Library’s massive digitization plan. Paul Mawhinney has accumulated a collection of more than 3 million recordings for his Pittsburgh-based Recordrama Sound Archives. He said the Library is overlooking a significant drawback to digital preservation.

“I think that the actual collection in vinyl is actually far superior to digital format,” he said. “Nobody knows how long [digital] is going to last.”

Library officials scoffed at the notion of storing recordings in vinyl. They said they would rely on the advice of professional audio archivists who maintain the best means of preserving audio is to digitize it into a high-resolution file format and then manage the file safely in a repository system.

“Vinyl certainly is stable but if you play it, it’s an invasive process,” DeAnna said. “Dropping a needle on a record is an invasive process. No one sees recording to vinyl as a preservation process. What happens when there aren’t any turntables to play it?”


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