prelingers

It’s an overcast Monday afternoon as I arrive at 8th and Folsom in San Francisco’s seedy, bohemian SOMA district. I find 301 8th Street and then buzz Room 215. A voice says hello. I tell him who I am and he buzzes me in. I take an elevator to the second floor, walk past several closed offices, and enter a small room packed to the rafters with four rows of shelves filled with books stacked 15 feet high. This is not your typical 21st-century urbane, haute-culture library.

The Prelinger Library (prelingerlibrary.org) is the brainchild of Megan Shaw Prelinger and Rick Prelinger. Founded in 2004, it’s a DIY, appropriation-friendly, intuitive, and highly personalized context for organizing and sharing this couple’s books, periodicals, printed ephemera (like obscure government documents from the Department of Indian Affairs), and — most of all — their obsessions. In addition to its physical presence in San Francisco, it has an online presence of more than 3,000 scanned volumes at the Internet Archive (archive.org).

Rick is also the founder of the Prelinger Archives, a collection of about 200,000 discrete items, including 60,000 advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur films. Rick founded the archives in 1982, and the Library of Congress acquired it in 2002. A subset of the archives is freely downloadable and reusable at the Internet Archive.

Rick and Megan met in 1998 over a mutual interest in landscaping history (Megan was looking into restarting Landscaping magazine). They soon discovered that they shared, in Megan’s words, “a remarkably similar set of cultural reference points and values, such as … punk rock and the DIY movement. We shared similar ideas about collection-building, with regards to books. We both valued book collections very highly, but valued them as building blocks, tools, and raw materials, rather than as static objects to be locked away.”

Soon, they — and their book collections — were married.

When the couple’s collection, in Megan’s words, “outstepped our immediate research needs,” they started to think about public access. But the size of their bounty wasn’t their main motivation for starting the Prelinger Library. That evolved out of a profound dissatisfaction with public and university libraries.

Public libraries have recently been shedding books to make room for elegant lounging spaces and rows of computers. And with their emphasis on query-based online cataloging, they are discouraging the sorts of serendipitous discoveries that occur while browsing the shelves. Meanwhile, academic libraries keep a lot of their most valuable research materials in “closed stacks,” leaving the browser unaware of what she is missing.

As Megan told an interviewer for In These Times, “One of the … barriers put in place by major research libraries is that they don’t enable ordinary people to make use of extraordinary materials.”

By contrast, the Prelinger Library provides extraordinary materials and then encourages serendipitous discovery. Megan has organized the flow of the materials into a sort of narrative structure.

Like a thoughtful DJ describing a playlist, Megan describes the interior taxonomic logic to her placement of books in an article on the library’s website: “Row Two starts with what people do with what we pull out of the Earth: histories of manufacturing and industry. Mill and Factory rubs shoulders here with Iron Age and Factory Management. The next bank proceeds to how we move around the objects we’ve made with what we’ve pulled out of the Earth: histories of transportation infrastructure. Highways, cars, railroads, airlines, and even Bus Transportation magazine have their spaces here.”

The extraordinary is the rule here (where else will you find the 1956–57 collection of Modern Packaging magazine?). The Prelingers don’t believe that history is best served by reading contemporary books by historians, so the library is a treasure trove of original source material. Do you want to know how the U.S. government described aspects of its slavery policies in sordid detail? Then why not go directly to the source and read a government research publication on slavery from the mid-19th century?

Another unique aspect of the Prelinger library is its appropriation-friendliness. As with Rick’s earlier film archives, the Prelingers want you to be able to take these fragments of history and use them for your own textual mashup — your own satire or commentary or research project. So they’ll help and encourage you to grab text and visuals from, say, Factory Management magazine, Soviet Woman, FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, or the complete 125-year run of the Official Gazette of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and then scan and use them.

I point out that nobody gets in my face at my local library when I use their copier to copy pages out of their books. So what’s so appropriation-friendly about the Prelingers’ place? Megan responds: “While it may be possible to still make copies at the public library, that doesn’t address the climate of fear that generally governs people’s relationships to the use of published works. People have been conditioned by the copyright notices at Kinko’s and other places to believe that they are not entitled to make something out of a published work. We encounter that with visitors who say, ‘Is it really OK to make a scan of this? Really?’

“By offering our space as a workshop and encouraging people to photograph, copy, or scan, we create an environment where the use made of the materials is foregrounded in a way it isn’t at the public library.

“Also, our library has a much greater proportion of public-domain materials than is present in a general reading collection in a public library. And it has been cultivated to be image-rich, and therefore of particular interest to artists. Combine that fact with the presence of a flatbed scanner, and the result is quite different than the fair-use xeroxing of contemporary, copyrighted works at the public library.”

The Prelingers facilitate open access to printed text in other ways as well. They’ve partnered with the Internet Archive to digitize 4,000 items in their library. And they actually take the trouble to investigate the public access possibilities of individual books. Says Rick, “The majority of works published from 1923 to 1963 are public domain, but the only way you can know is to check the physical copy for the proper form of copyright notice and look for a copyright renewal in the records of the U.S. Copyright Office. This process is hard to automate, but for books we use an excellent database built by Mike Lesk and optimized by the Stanford University library. For other items we consult our own copies of Copyright Office records. It is, for sure, a slow and artisanal process.”

In defense of the public domain, the Prelinger Library has joined the Internet Archives in challenging recent changes to copyright law — changes that automatically copyright for 50 years all text made public. This new copyright law creates an “orphan class” of creative works, because even if authors no longer care about protecting their commercial rights, the copyright is automatically in force and permission for reuse can only be granted by the author, who may be dead or impossible to locate.

Before leaving, I ask the Prelingers if their library is replicable. “Yes!” says Megan. “We really encourage people to create their own idiosyncratic public-access libraries.”

Imagine if all the most rabid collectors of books and odd (or not-so-odd) textual ephemera started merging collections in locales all over the world, and artfully organized them so that each one represented a way of seeing the world. Sounds pretty cool, right? Let a million public-access libraries bloom!

» Prelinger Library online collection: archive.org/details/prelinger_library

» Prelinger Archives online collection: archive.org/details/prelinger