Down the Rabbit Hole in Search of a Few Frames of Irish American History

But the Library of Congress is the keeper of American memory. Its immense collection contains more than 178 million books, manuscripts, recordings, maps, photographs and moving images — including a two-minute trace of “The Callahans and the Murphys.”

Would I like to see it?

So deeper I fell, until finally bottoming out in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, on the outskirts of Culpeper, Va.

Here, in the late 1960s, the federal government built an underground facility into the side of Mount Pony, about 75 miles southwest of Washington, as a secure storehouse for billions of dollars in cash in the event of nuclear war. Responsibility for the structure was eventually transferred to the Library of Congress, expanded and repurposed as the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, with nearly 90 miles of shelving.

Stored in the side of this mountain are four million scripts, posters, photos and other ephemera; four million sound recordings; and two million moving-image items, including about 140,000 cans of nitrate films kept in specially designed vaults where the temperature is kept at precisely 39 degrees. The vaults are divided by studio and nonstudio films: in one section, Columbia Pictures (say, “It Happened One Night”); in another, Universal Pictures (“Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein”).

“It is not meant to be a comprehensive representation of American cinema,” said Pierce, the center’s assistant chief and walking film encyclopedia. “It is not our goal, and we don’t have the space or the staff, to collect absolutely everything on film.”

Wherever I looked, staffers were handling, preserving and curating film. A young woman shipping a print of the 1950 musical “Annie Get Your Gun” to a film festival. A laboratory specialist repairing the tears in a fragile negative of “Seed,” a 1931 melodrama that featured a very young Bette Davis.

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