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Inside the National Audiovisual Conservation Center

Deep in a bunker built into a mountainside in Culpepper, Va., sits what could be described as an AV enthusiast's ultimate destination. Housed in a former Federal Reserve building, the Library of Congress' new National Audiovisual Conservation Center (NAVCC) contains an inventory of more than 6 million pieces of historical AV, including 1.2 million moving images, 3 million sound recordings, and 1.5 million related manuscripts; some dating to the late 1800s.

CHALLENGE: Digitize over 4 million pieces of audio, video, and film in the consolidated collection, and provide true-to-recording playback capabilities for all media.

SOLUTION: Develop new mass digitalization technologies, and design and install AV rooms that provide playback technologies ranging from the obsolete to the cutting edge.

The NAVCC has seven audio conversion rooms, including one with a sophisticated acoustic and sound system and custom Simon Yorke turntables.

The NAVCC has seven audio conversion rooms, including one with a sophisticated acoustic and sound system and custom Simon Yorke turntables.

Credit: Courtesy Communications Engineering

Deep in a bunker built into a mountainside in Culpepper, Va., sits what could be described as an AV enthusiast's ultimate destination. Housed in a former Federal Reserve building, the Library of Congress' new National Audiovisual Conservation Center (NAVCC) contains an inventory of more than 6 million pieces of historical AV, including 1.2 million moving images, 3 million sound recordings, and 1.5 million related manuscripts. Some of these AV artifacts include sights and sounds that were recorded as far back as the late 1800s.

The Conservation Center's facility is one of three buildings on the 415,000-square-foot Packard Campus, named after David Woodley Packard, whose $155 million major donor gift made the project possible. The other facilities include a collections building and a separate building where 124 vaults store nitrate films at a constant 25 degrees. The 175,000-square-foot Conservation Center's consolidated inventory represents years of planning and collaboration; previously, the collection was housed in four separate locations across the country and often in less than ideal conditions.

The NAVCC's Art Deco-style theater, top, hosts viewings of films from the its archives. The facility's three video conversion rooms, bottom, include an array of vintage equipment.

The NAVCC's Art Deco-style theater, top, hosts viewings of films from the its archives. The facility's three video conversion rooms, bottom, include an array of vintage equipment.

Credit: Courtesy Communications Engineering

According to the Library of Congress, the goal of the consolidation project is "to preserve and make accessible the world's largest and most comprehensive collection of moving images and sound recordings." The unique challenge for manufacturer SAMMA Systems of New York and systems integrator Communications Engineering (CEI) of Newington, Va., was the Library's need to quickly and accurately digitize the collection and provide the most accurate, true-to-recording playback equipment for all forms of media.

Preservation Science

The heart of the preservation portion of the Conservation Center is the conservation building, where the collection is cataloged, managed, and digitized. Several new mass digitization technologies were created specifically for the Library, including an optical scanner called I.R.E.N.E. (Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.) that can create digital audio files using surface imaging technology. Developed by the Library of Congress and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the method is noninvasive and considered the current best technology to preserve fragile or damaged mechanical recordings.

SAMMA Systems founder Jim Lindner also created the System for the Automated Migration of Media Assets (SAMMA) automated system for the preservation and migration of tape collections.

"In 2002, I was working as a consultant for the Library of Congress. I was looking at the size of their collection and the task that needed to be done. I quickly realized that current technology couldn't handle the task," explains Lindner, an international authority on magnetic media preservation. "There were products on the market that could digitize, but weren't geared to play back old tapes. No product existed so, with the Library's blessing, I went off to create SAMMA."

The SAMMA system can run 24/7. Batches of 48 U-matic or 60 Betacam tapes are loaded into the automated system. A robotic handler within the unit loads each tape into an analyzer for digitization. Each SAMMA unit can fit through a standard-sized doorway and does not have special HVAC requirements.

CEI was brought on to the project in September 2006 for the AV system design and installation of the conservation facility's AV playback rooms, or pods. Pods are used by technicians to transfer video, audio, and film materials, and play back the digitized files for quality assurance. Herman Reynolds, CEI project manager, worked with his team to perform quality control a previous design.

"It was completed so far in the past that the project's direction had changed and some products were no longer available," he says.

CEI also designed and installed a central equipment room that includes Evertz distribution amplifiers, signal converters, and video routers. A separate "live capture" room records live video feeds, terrestrial radio transmissions, and satellite radio broadcasts. "They want to capture the last analog transmission before the switch to DTV," says Gregg Echols, director of marketing and business development for CEI.

The workflow of the AV collection begins when the media leaves deep storage and goes through the transfer cycle. For audio tapes, a Cube-Tec Quadriga audio analysis system is used for multiple transfers, similar to the SAMMA system.

From a pod room, the technician can oversee quality control by looking at metadata detailing the condition of the media; the system logs the overall quality, notes any audio drop-outs, and details any issues with the tape while it is being digitized. "The system keeps timestamps of any errors during digitization. From there, the original files go back to storage," says Reynolds.

That's a Lot of Petabytes

According to the Library of Congress, the Packard Campus will produce approximately 2 petabytes (2,000 terabytes) of digital content in its first year of operation, increasing to an annual rate of 3 to 5 petabytes thereafter.

The pods are grouped by AV format and are all located on the third floor. There are nine total AV pods–three for turntables, two for cassette, one for order fulfillment (to fill requests from the public and government agencies for copies), one QC room for audio, one for surround sound, and one esoteric room that handles vintage media. CEI standardized equipment across all rooms as much as possible for cost savings, ease of use, and maintenance.

Parts of the building were already in existence, such as the vaults for nitrate film that previously held money from the Federal Reserve, but the conservation building was new construction. This allowed for raised flooring that made cable pulls and equipment installation much easier and faster.

The Library hired an independent acoustician who installed acoustical treatment in the audio pods to provide the most stable listening environment. Certain processing equipment was allowed in the room, but any equipment deemed as noisy was installed outside the room in a separate shared control room. Audio playback rooms feature Maselec MTC-2 analog audio mastering mixer, ATC SCM150ASL three-way active loudspeakers for music and film, and Dolby 363-SR/A noise reduction units.

Several nights a week, the public is invited to movie screenings at the Center's 208-seat theater. Kinoton FP75ES 35/70mm projectors provide film playback capability, and an organ is stored on lifts under the stage to accompany silent movies.

And the collection continually grows–which is itself an AV technology challenge. The Library of Congress receives donated media on a daily basis; what comes in ranges from obsolete formats like wax cylinders and eight-track tapes to recordings on out-of-date, but not quite obsolete, cassettes tapes. CEI was presented with the challenge of finding proper playback equipment for both old and new media. "Locating the old format players meant going to used stereo shops and looking on eBay," says Reynolds, "Then all playback equipment must be finely tuned to reproduce the media exactly as recorded."

CEI maintains a service and repair shop with staff members who can fix antiquated equipment such as the Sony Super Betamax player, Ampex VPR6/TBC6 2-inch quad video recorders, Simon Yorke S7 turntables with Vibraplane mount, Studer reel-to-reel recorder, or a Pioneer PR-8210 laser disc player.

The search for vintage equipment never ends. The team at CEI is constantly on the lookout for working and non-working units for use as replacements and spare parts.

"The building is high tech because of the wide range of AV equipment–from obsolete to current technology," explains Reynolds. "It is a great historical representation of AV technology."

Linda Seid Frembes is a Pro AV contributing editor.



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