Category Archives: prelinger

what’s important to save

Rick Prelinger and Megan Shaw visited for lunch earlier in the week and gave us a preview of the very interesting presentation they made later that day about the SF-based Prelinger Library . Beginning in the 70s Rick started collecting film and video that no one else seemed to want — industrials (e.g. GM’s worldfair and auto show films), educational films (think “how to be popular”, “how to be a good citizen” and how to make the perfect jelly), and filmed advertisements to be shown in movie theaters and early TV. Rick’s contention, as the first serious media archaeologist, was that these films that no one intended to be saved or seen again — ephemeral films — often provided much more insight about howsociety has evolved in the twentieth century than the big budget hollywood films which tend to be more self-conscious and indirect.
Below are a few clips from some of my favorites. the clip from “A Date With Your Family” contains one of the scariest moments i’ve ever encountered in film, when at the end of the clip, the narrator remarks as “father” returns from his day at the office . . . . that “these boys greet their dad AS THOUGH they are genuinely glad to see him, AS THOUGH they had really missed being away from him during the day . . . ” In the second clip, “A Young Man’s Fancy,” the daughter in a pensive mood says “I was just thinking” and the mother says incredulously, “thinking?” as if that’s the most outlandish thing she can imagine her daughter doing.

A few years ago, the Library of Congress, recognizing the inestimable value of Rick’s collection, bought the whole kit and caboodle. Since then, Rick and his partner, Megan Shaw have turned their attention to print, building a library of unusual books, periodicals and print ephemera; e.g. an invaluable collection of ESSO’s state maps from the fities that favors serendipitous browsing and remix. (the cover of the ESSO map below depicts a young boy being introduced by his dad to the wonders of nuclear fusion).
The following is from the description on the library’s website:

Though libraries live on (and are among the least-corrupted democratic institutions), the freedom to browse serendipitously is becoming rarer. Now that many research libraries are economizing on space and converting print collections to microfilm and digital formats, it’s becoming harder to wander and let the shelves themselves suggest new directions and ideas. Key academic and research libraries are often closed to unaffiliated users, and many keep the bulk of their collections in closed stacks, inhibiting the rewarding pleasures of browsing. Despite its virtues, query-based online cataloging often prevents unanticipated yet productive results from turning up on the user’s screen. And finally, much of the material in our collection is difficult to find in most libraries readily accessible to the general public.

essoephemera.jpg schoolexecmag.jpg

While listening to Rick and Megan’s talk i had a minor AHA moment. a lot of our skepticism and concern about Google centers on the inherent dangers of a private company being entrusted with the care and feeding of our increasingly digitize culture. When Rick and Megan showed the cover of School Executives, a journal from the 40s, which featured an article on the value of teachers toting guns to enforce classroom discipline, i realized that Google’s digitization efforts focus entirely on codex books (maybe to be extended to periodicals that libraries have bothered to store). but the invaluable materials that might be called “print-based” ephemera — pamphlets, marketing materials, off-beat journals, zines etc. — will be absent in the future. The sad thing about this, as we know from Rick’s ephemeral film collection, is that often these pieces that were never meant to survive tell us more about how our culture evolved and how we’ve ended up where we are, than many self-conscious efforts conceived with permanence in mind.

the year-long Interdisciplinary Library Exhibit launches

proteus_gowanus_prelinger.jpgThe year-long Interdisciplinary Library Exhibit started last night at Proteus Gowanus, an arts organization located in Brooklyn, New York. The opening event was a standing room only presentation by Rick Prelinger and Megan Shaw Prelinger who run the Prelinger Library. Their presentation focused on their work leading up to the creation of the library, a highly curated collection of printed matter they have accumulated over two decades. The collection has a strong focus on books, print ephemera and periodicals. The 40,000 plus items are now on display and open to the public in downtown San Francisco. Visitors are allowed to stop in and browse items from the collection. The library’s collection is an amazing experiment in curation, taxonomy (they created their own,) and commentary on how libraries are shifting forms. We were fortunate to have lunch with Rick and Megan before their event. Everyone at the institute found their work very inspiring and they will be discussed in more detail in upcoming posts.
The spirit of the Prelinger’s work is great introduction to Proteus Gowanus’ exploration on this theme. Libraries are in flux, as they have historically played many roles, including distributors of knowledge, places that support research, archives and now quite often, community centers. For the next year, Proteus Gowans is displaying in their gallery, artwork related to libraries as well as hosting presentations and films. Photos by Nina Katchadourian depict the spines of various books which compose textual messages. Artist Jeffrey Schiff’s contribution plays with the Dewey Decimal System and themes of categorizations by applying call numbers to everyday objects and spaces. Also, included in the exhibit is the Reanimation Library, curated and owned by Andrew Beccone. This collection preserves books that are not typically saved in public and academic libraries, including titles such as “Simplified Taxidermy,” “A Guide to Gymnastics” and “Judo: Thirty Lessons in the Modern Science of Jiu-Jitsu.” The next event is Deirdre Lawrence, the Principal Librarian and Coordinator of Research Services Museum Libraries and Archives at the Brooklyn Museum, on October 27th.
Issues of funding, the rise of the digital, and intellectual property are all changing the role of libraries and how people interact with them. Many large questions are being asked about the future of the library. The most basic one being, what will it look like? Will it start to shift towards smaller nodes of semi-private collections connected to each other via the network? Are collections of books going to be increasingly less tied to physical spaces? Will the public library continue to shift towards acting more like a community center? Are publishers and libraries going fuse and produce a new hybrid institution?
Realizing that libraries are going through a cultural as well as technological transformation, Proteus Gowanus is embarking on an year long examination in a variety of media which track these changes. They may not be able to answer any of these questions directly, but they are certainly providing new directions and understandings. Most importantly, the Interdisciplinary Library Exhibit is opening up the conversation to a diversity of voices, including the public at large.