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Real National Treasure, The (DVD Review)

4 Oct, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD
Not rated.

Though any informative documentary on a fascinating subject is its own justification and reward, the later parts of this hello to the Library of Congress are of overriding interest to those who love seeing classic movies on DVD and Blu-ray (or, if they’re lucky to live in the right place) in a museum or repertory theater. All those preserved films have to be stored somewhere, right?

Or, to put it another way, the Library has come a long way since it was refurbished — following its burning by the Brits during the War of 1812 — with its jump-start purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s private literary holdings for $23,950. And it was a shell-out that many in Congress didn’t want to appropriate at the time.

The Library’s holdings are so massive (only 21% are of books) that they require five locations: the Jefferson, Madison and Adams Buildings on Capitol Hill; storage modules in Fort Lee, MD. that are 30 feet high; and the relatively recent Packard Campus in Culpeper, Va. — where motion picture, broadcast and recorded sound collections are housed in what formerly was a bomb shelter.
And now for a personal note. Long before it began paying the dividends of “digitalization” for the general public’s wider online consumption I worked for two years in the Library (but was not of the Library) on an independent film research project that provided me with a stack pass and other perks associated with biblio-mania. These were now ancient 1970s days (think more Dewey Decimal cards that you’ve ever imagined), but I have never gotten over the thrill of feeling the karma from an operation whose holdings include, using just examples we see here:

•The spectacularly large, competitive drawing submitted by architect Maya Lin (once the subject of an Oscar-winning feature documentary) for the Vietnam Memorial.

•Stradivarius violins, kept in a locked case, which have even been CAT-scanned so that researchers can ascertain their secrets.

•A rare, near-unique letter from Harry Houdini to his family and signed in his real name (Erich Weiss).    

•Presidential diaries (with lots about weather and crops from farmer George Washington), plus Benjamin Franklin’s original Poor Richard’s Almanacks and Jefferson’s copy of the Koran.

•Handwritten music charts by Beethoven (lots of erasures and scribblings) and Mozart (amazingly clean, as if he always knew what he wanted).

•Aerial photographs of the San Francisco Earthquake aftermath, which were a sensation at the time — plus 5,000 photos of child labor abuses from 1910, which led to major legislation.
All are artifacts that could stop a conversation, but the day-to-day material about one of the globe’s more specialized workplaces is fascinating as well. We see the daily deliveries of materials that need to be copyrighted. A person subjecting CDs from the same manufacturer to facsimiled accelerated-aging tests — and having one turn out to still be perfect and the other a zero. An employee operating a forklift to retrieve someone’s desired volume. The film staff dressing for winter even when it’s hot outside because the preservation process works best at around 39 degrees. Nitrate film reels housed on individual shelves that will protect the rest of the collection (with help from overhead sprinklers) if one reel should suddenly combust.

The documentary is part of the History Channel’s “Modern Marvel” series. And the Library is definitely one, even if George Washington’s crops (or the old-school manure he used to goose the soil) are your overriding interest.

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