Inside the Nuclear Bunker Where America Preserves Its Movie History

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tags: The Library of Congress, Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation



If the film is rare, highly flammable, and was made before 1951, there’s a good chance it’ll end up on George Willeman’s desk. Or more specifically, in one of his vaults. As the Nitrate Film Vault Manager at The Library of Congress’  Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation, Willeman presides over more than 160,000 reels of combustible cinematic treasure, from the original camera negatives of 1903’s The Great Train Robbery to the early holdings of big studios like Columbia, Warner Bros, and Universal. And more barrels keep showing up every week. 

Arriving at the Library through a combination of private donations and official purchases, these nitrate films represent a small fraction of its 1.4 million movie, television, and video recordings. Still, they’re without a doubt some of the oldest and most important. Hence the 124 cold storage vaults that wind their way down the hallway just outside of Willeman’s office. “They kind of remind me of the solitary confinement in Papillon,” he says before popping open the door to Columbia Pictures’ B-film vault. “Very severe looking.”

That severity serves a critical purpose, one that even Steve McQueen would likely approve of. While cellulose nitrate can be an extremely robust long-term storage medium (there’s an experimental film from Edison’s Laboratoryhere that dates back to 1891), it does have some unique and undesirable properties. Namely, it explodes. And decays. And catches fire. All with surprisingly little provocation. Also, it doesn’t need oxygen to burn (it conveniently supplies its own), can’t be put out once it does start burning, and it exudes nitric oxide as it deteriorates, which causes an autocatalytic reaction that hastens decay even more.




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