The Library of Congress Ultimate Archive System

Categories:Archiving, Blog Post, Film

The United States Library of Congress has a vast store of media material

and a will to save it for the future using an ultimate and unique archive system.

The division within the Library of Congress responsible for audio visual and film materials covers a collection of 6.3 million items. This includes 140 million feet of cellulose nitrate based films dating back to the 1890s which is highly inflammable. If left alone it will decay to a brown gooey mess. Though it can be kept safely for a very long time if stored at very low temperature and modest humidity.

As a back up though and where possible these films will be copied to cellulose triacetate safety film. A much more stable media.

The Unique Film Storage Part

Some of the very earliest of these films though, are based on a very different material. Copyright law of those days did not recognise moving picture film and could only define it as a series of still pictures. So copyright law required films to be printed to a long strip of photographic paper and then deposited with the library.

These “prints” are now a more accurate record of those early films than any surviving film copies. They have been held in storage for many years and almost forgotten. Attempts have been made to copy them back to a projectable film, but it appears registration between frames is not accurate. It has been necessary to develop a process of photographic copying of each individual frame. These would then be assembled using a computer the align the images.

The more I see this type of work, the more I realise a strange phenomenon. That while the original technology used to make our early media is becoming harder to access, the technology we can use to restore that media is becoming more sophisticated.