Fred Ott, a magnificently mustachioed employee at Thomas Edison’s lab in Menlo Park, was known among his colleagues for his comedic sneezes. On January 7, 1894, Ott sneezed in Edison’s Black Maria studio in West Orange, New Jersey, in front of a camera operated by William Heise.
Two days later, on January 9, film director W.K.L. Dickson submitted a paper print—a frame-by-frame photographic print of the film—of Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze for copyright deposit at the Library of Congress. It remains the earliest surviving copyrighted motion picture in the U.S., and it can be streamed online from the library’s website (or watched via YouTube).
The five-second black-and-white 35mm film is one of about 1.4 million moving-image items and 3.5 million sound recordings preserved and collected in Culpeper at the Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation, a facility gifted to the Library of Congress in 2007 by philanthropist and film conservation enthusiast David Woodley Packard.
Previously, the building had been a Federal Reserve bunker that, at the height of the Cold War, held a few billion dollars in cash and coin that would be used to restart the U.S. economy east of the Mississippi River in case of a nuclear catastrophe. With approval from Congress, Packard bought the building from the government in 1997 and transformed it into the preservation hub that the library needed for its growing audio-visual collection.
“Everybody loves movies. But I don’t know that we’ve done enough to ensure the continued existence of these films from the past,” says Mike Mashon, head of the moving-image section at Packard. “In some ways, we’ve embraced the history, glamour and storytelling splendor of movie-making while ignoring the reality that films are physical artifacts that can shrink and fade and disintegrate into dust in less than a lifetime. Our mission at the Packard Campus is to preserve as much of our nation’s audio-visual heritage as we can, as quickly as we can, because we want to make it accessible to people,” Mashon says, adding that in addition to screening hundreds of films and sound recordings each year, Packard annually loans about 400 films to theaters around the world.
“Movies are the people’s art form,” he says. “They tell us who we were, who we are. They tell us where we’re going.”
Moving-image section processing technician and Charlottesville resident Dave Gibson agrees. Gibson says it’s culturally, historically and socially important to preserve “the record of what things looked like, how we behaved, how we acted.” Watch a Buster Keaton movie from the 1920s and you’ll be surprised by how much has changed, but you may be more surprised by how much has stayed the same, Gibson says.
The Packard Campus is equipped with everything needed to preserve moving images and sound recordings and make them accessible to the public: various physical and digital formats, plus playback equipment, laboratories, temperature- and humidity-controlled storage, 100 miles of shelving (Culpeper is about 50 miles from Charlottesville) and a data center.
When an item comes in—say, a 35mm film, it’s copyrighted, cataloged and described; then the film goes to the moving-image division where a processing technician will rehouse the film reel in labeled archival cans and send those cans into the vaults. Sometimes films are digitized for streaming online, or for viewing from the Library of Congress reading room in Washington, D.C.
“The misconception is that moving-image archivists sit around watching movies and TV all day, and I wish that was the case,” Gibson says with a laugh. While processing Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, lyricist Howard Ashman’s collection of production materials, Gibson watched some of the footage to better describe it for the library catalog. He says the collection contains different versions of the films, audition footage and even live-action footage of an actress mouthing The Little Mermaid dialogue to give animators an idea of how Ariel might move.
But the collection isn’t limited to feature films or motion pictures deemed important by critics and cultural historians. Gibson says there are plenty of home movies in the collection, and they can be just as valuable—the footage of President Kennedy’s assassination was a home movie that happened to capture a pivotal moment in American history. But even a reel of a 1956 family visit to Yellowstone National Park can tell us a lot: what the park was like in 1956 and how it’s changed; what people wore, drove, ate, bought or read.
Gibson says that in a single day at Packard, he might work on the Ashman collection in the morning, and then in the afternoon, work on a collection of Apple II video games (video games are a growing part of the library’s moving-image collection), and then discuss how to best preserve born-digital media like YouTube videos and even memes with the same care they’ve given a 35mm print of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video and a three-quarter-inch tape of one of Spike Lee’s student films.
“It’s a constant cabinet of wonders around here,” Mashon says, with wonder palpable in his voice. “It’s probably a few times a week I run across something and say, ‘We have that? We have that?’”
Contact Erin O’Hare at firstname.lastname@example.org.