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.
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.