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From Issue #45 June 19, 2014

The Punk Library

A mental landscape reveals itself in metal shelving.

By Chris Higgins Twitter icon 

Rick and Megan Prelinger

Every workshop has tools, and most are laid out according to a practical plan: the saw hangs by the sander, the goggles near the welding torch. In San Francisco, the Prelinger Library is a workshop of the mind, its tools organized according to an intellectual geography. Books are arranged so a visitor can walk through ideas, starting on the ground and ending up in outer space.

There is no card catalog — “We don’t believe in that!” Rick Prelinger says — and Megan Prelinger shelved the collection based on intuitive links among subjects. Their library is not built so that visitors can find a specific book; instead, it’s designed to encourage discovery and association. “Between the two of us, we pretty much know what’s in here,” Megan says of herself and her husband. “But at the same time, visitors always find things that we don’t know about.”

I visited the library on a sunny Wednesday. (It’s open only on Wednesdays because of budget constraints.) What I found was an astonishing array of printed materials, a celebration of creativity and culture. At the front table, two smiling librarians invited me to walk through the stacks in order to discover my next story. They also gave me tea.

A storage unit and a dream

The Prelingers didn’t technically have a library when they started, even though they called it one. Rick says that founding their library “was contrarian, because independent and private libraries are usually associated with wealth, privilege, and enclosure, and we wanted to do the opposite.” Megan nods. “We wanted to do the punk version,” she says.

“We declared ourselves to be a library long before we ever were one, and declared ourselves entitled to claim things from library-to-library exchange lists,” says Megan.

While libraries were tossing books, the Prelingers scooped them up, including periodicals, maps, magazines, zines, and other materials.1 They didn’t have enough storage at home, and spent years accumulating media in rented space. The Prelingers accrued 3,000 boxes, mixing library castoffs with their personal book collection, and they searched for a place to put them.

In late 2003, the Prelingers capitalized on a downward swing in San Francisco’s real estate cycle, leasing a single large room in the South of Market district. In May 2004, they put in tremendous floor-to-ceiling shelving units, and in June invited 58 friends from across the country to help fill them up. After workdays of shelving issues of Electric Railway Journal and International Television Almanac, the group took midsummer picnics and watched movies together. “That was the nexus of the community that built around the library,” Rick says.

Today, the library feels like it has always been there. It has areas of clutter and zones of peaceful order. At one end of the room, light floods in through old windows. At the other, the natural light has been almost entirely blocked by five towering rows of shelves. (When I visited, light strips were being installed in the dark center stacks so they’d be easier to navigate.)

Simply walking through the stacks, I’m confronted by a journey through light and darkness, surrounded on all sides by books, labeled in sections ranging from ultra-specific to hugely broad: BIRDS, ATOMIC ERA, SALES, YOUTH, INTELLECTUAL “PROPERTY,” GEOPOLITICS.

Workshop

The Prelinger Library was built in part so that the Prelingers could have a place to work with their collection of research material. Megan Prelinger wrote her 2010 book Another Science Fiction based on discoveries made while looking through atomic-era magazines in the library. The book is all about the advertisements found in those magazines, but she didn’t set out to write a book about advertising.

Megan explains, “The idea of acquiring Missiles and Rockets and Aviation Week came out of a general directive to understand Cold War-era history and history of American material culture. But then because it was right in front of me, I decided it was like an experimental investigative inquiry to read them as if they were literature, just start to finish. What would I get?

“What I found was immediately striking: a two-channel reading experience where there was one narrative going on in the advertisements and another going on in the article texts of the magazines. I thought, wow, there’s this really interesting creative tension between these two modes of storytelling on the page that are right next to each other, bouncing off each other, but not the same.”

This is the soul of the Prelingers’ approach to inquiry: flip through the pages, walk through the stacks, discover something unexpected, and maybe write a book about it. Another Science Fiction would not have existed without that practice.

Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired and former editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, was profoundly affected by the Prelinger Library. Kelly had planned to publish his book Cool Tools as a digital volume until he visited the library and became reacquainted with the power of print — and became acquainted with the library, which he describes as “an electrifying planetary power spot.”2

The vibe is palpable, like entering a treasure chamber but one equipped with scanners and photocopiers. The Prelingers see their library as a workshop, and they encourage visitors to appropriate whatever they can. (Part of the collection is also available online at the Internet Archive.)3

Kelly elaborates, “I think it was that scale, which was not quite institutional, but it was bigger than most people’s bookshelves. There was some intermediate scale of a kind of — what’s the word I want? — it’s the difference between a single person and an expedition.”

In addition to prompting him to produce Cool Tools as a giant, print-only volume, Kelly’s experience in the Prelinger Library convinced him to preserve his personal library as paper volumes rather than ship his books to India to be cut into pieces and scanned. “I still want them all digitized, but I’m not going to give them up,” he says.

A decade after it opened, the Prelinger Library is an ongoing celebration of why libraries matter. Libraries are not about books; they’re about communities. In the heart of San Francisco, a pair of punk librarians fling wide the doors and welcome all comers. But only on Wednesdays.

Photos: Prelingers and Popular Science by Chris Higgins; stacks and signage by Glenn Fleishman.


  1. The institutional term for this process is “deaccessioning.” Sometimes deaccession involves selling valuable materials, but often it’s a giveaway. This is how the Prelinger Library acquired now-rare magazines like Uranium, Printers’ Ink, American City, and American Builder

  2. Publisher Glenn Fleishman interviewed Kevin Kelly about Cool Tools for his New Disruptors podcast in February 2014. A complete transcript of the interview is also available. 

  3. Chris wrote about the Internet Archive in “Into the Labyrinth,” January 2014 (Issue 34). 

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