The Prelinger Library’s physical home is open to the public on Wednesdays, which means that if you’re in San Francisco, you can take a bus to SoMa and go into an unmarked building, ride the elevator up, and enter a warmly lit, high-ceilinged room fronted with working tables and filled with long, high bookshelves. And while you’re there, you’ll likely meet one or both of the library’s founders and animating spirits, Rick Prelinger and Megan Shaw Prelinger.

When we visited the Library late last fall, there were a couple of researchers there ahead of us working with piles of books and ephemera. The Prelingers offered tea and a gentle orientation to the material and its arrangement, and we can verify that it is tremendously easy to lose hours and hours wandering the stacks, dipping into unusual books, and leafing through boxes of ’zines. But there’s also another collection within the Prelinger Library that isn’t on the shelves: it lives on the server stacks at the Internet Archive, where you can look up and download files including the official guide to the Chicago World’s Fair, Safely on We Go (on the prevention of accidents), and several volumes of Scribner’s Magazine. The online library, entwined with the physical collection in subject and type, lives conceptually very near to the Prelinger Archives, which includes thousands of digitized advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur films.

Between research jags, screenings, and editorial work on their many concurrent projects, the Prelingers spoke with us about the nature and fate of libraries and archives in an increasingly digital age.

Contents: When I first learned about the Prelinger Library, one thing that stopped me in my tracks was the idea of a collection arranged for serendipity. Can you introduce the arrangement of the physical library?

Megan Shaw Prelinger: The library’s arrangement scheme was designed in response to several conditions: First, the collection is unique to our combined areas of particular interest. It has never tried to be a general-interest research collection. Second, therefore, the library did not really fit the taxonomic systems of either the Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal. For instance: Art and politics? Hand-made films? Nature-culture interface? History of the demonization of youth in society? These are just a few of our subject areas that are not clearly articulated in pre-existing taxonomic systems.

Third, for us—for myself in particular—the process of research is inseparable from the physical process of exploration of the world. In my experience, creative and intellectual work flows from physical engagement with the landscape. There are literal manifestations of this, such as the discovery of forgotten places and the collection of forgotten literature from the shelves of a rural shop. More intangibly, the processes of walking, hiking, or taking a road trip are useful activities for developing new ideas or thinking through puzzles.

Megan and Rick

Rick Prelinger and Megan Shaw Prelinger in the library

Given these conditions, it became self-evident to organize the library’s shelves in a way that harmonizes with the process of exploration: Where are you when you begin each exploration? What parts of the world do you engage first in the process of exploration? Where do you “end”? etc. The result is a landscape-based, geospatial arrangement system. This system, in outline, “starts” where the library is, in San Francisco, and “ends” in outer space. Its rough structure moves from place-based subjects to the made worlds of art, media, and culture, to abstracts like society and philosophy, to space exploration.

For example, the first row progresses from the San Francisco section eastward, across the North American landscape to the Atlantic, where it makes a transition to general landscape-based subjects such as natural history, nature-culture interface, agriculture, rural life, and extractive resource industries.

The associative subject flow itself is designed to facilitate serendipity, and serendipity is enhanced by the practice of creative juxtaposition of materials within subject sections. Government documents are shelved near modern monographs that interpret them, and satirical histories are shelved next to serious ones. Subject-matter fiction is interspersed amongst nonfiction, and trade literature can sometimes stand for a whole topic. (Our run of “National Safety News” is the whole “safety” section.)

The library is in two major parts: The open bookshelves, and the boxed ephemera collection. The geospatial arrangement system is duplicated in both places, but only the bookshelves offer the surprising juxtapositions. The flow of subjects within the geospatial arrangement system is described in some detail on our site.

The browsing experience of physical bookshelves—and even of the web—is so absorbing, but our digital archives and libraries still struggle to serve browsers and wanderers. How can we create absorbing browsing experiences in formal collections of digital works?

MSP: A lot of people have thought more than we have about the future of the digital bookshelf. You probably know about them: The David Rumsey Map Collection is set up in Second Life for avatars to physically browse the collection. The Institute for the Future of the Book is working on models of digital bookshelves. What I really see being needed is a way for query-based search to mimic the kinds of associative links that are formed by shelving different kinds of literature next to one another on a shelf. What if, when you typed in a search term, your result was a color-coded cloud of virtual book covers.

Maps, posters, and covers

Safehouses for ephemera

In the cloud, covers highlighted in one color would represent the straight response to your search query. Jackets highlighted in other colors, floating behind them, could follow any of hundreds of other associations. Perhaps you could select a half-dozen supplemental associative searches from a list before you begin your search. Then you see a layer behind your straight result that’s composed of satires, or other works by the same author, or public records that relate to your search term—or every work that’s cited within a given book’s bibliography! Features like those would inject intense excitement into digital search.

Rick Prelinger: Allow for chance and serendipity. Let people get lost in the library. Make it VERY simple to “pull a book off the shelf and open it up.” There is so little you can do with a mouse and trackpad. It’s a shame that the richness of today’s screens seems to be accompanied by such a constrained toolbox for human-machine interaction.

You two have been working as archivists and librarians during the shift from entirely tangible archives to archives both tangible and electronic. How has your work changed, or not changed?

RP: The most dramatic effect for us has been the propagation of our collections to a mass audience. It’s hard to be precise, but it’s safe to say our films have had at least 70 million views. That’s pretty unprecedented for an historical moving image archives. And while we can’t know the number of derivative works made from our archival film collection, our images are ubiquitous and have made their way into just about every kind of image-bearing medium.

We’ve also found that the turn toward digital has a defamiliarizing effect upon analog materials. In the library, we’ve discovered that print has become a privileged medium whose allure seems to grow greater as books recede from the everyday sphere. So while the world enacts the end of print and the onset of bit-based book simulations, it simultaneously celebrates print as a special kind of experience. This is a bit uncanny, like simultaneously being vegan and carnivore, and I think we’re a few years away from sorting out how we really feel about books. But the fascination is real—we track it by reading the faces of our library visitors, especially the younger ones, who are entranced by high shelves of books, every one of which they are invited to pull down and open.

When I was at the library, I remember you said that kids and teenagers were some of your most fascinated visitors. Why is that?

MSP: Part of that is situational, because a lot of people who teach at area colleges and universities bring classes in to tour the library and do projects. So that creates a proportion of college-age library users that becomes part of our core community. Many college-age library visitors return again to do projects, even long after they’ve left school. Over the years, this accumulation of college students and young post-college people has resulted in us having a core community that is generally young.

Souvenir Oliver Optic

Our Boys & Girls Souvenir, by Oliver Optic (now in 3D)

But part of the answer is also how we’re positioned within the community: We are a local workshop, not an institution. We serve tea, and we encourage photography and scanning and any other form of non-destructive appropriation. That kind of environment is very natural to people in the millennial generation and people who have grown up during the resurgence of craft and DIY spaces.

The third part of that phenomenon is that there aren’t as many older books in wide circulation as there were in previous decades. Some teens have grown up in homes where they absorb cultural knowledge entirely through digital channels. We get high school groups as well as college students. Some of these teen-aged visitors have never really held an “old” book before. I’ve heard teenagers scream with enthusiasm that they are being “allowed” to touch and hold an “old” book. And smell it. They become extremely tactile and extremely involved during their explorations of the library. This is the most illuminating part of having a lot of young people in our library’s community. It has shown us that 3-D objects, rather than having been de-valued in the digital age are if anything being re-valued.

Megan, you’ve said that part of the project of the library is to “collapse the working distinction” between analogand digital, and you also talked about the ways in which the integration of the two can “animate” a collection, allowing it to serve different audiences in different ways. Can you say more about that?

MSP: The library project is an experiment in collapsing some of the working dualities between analog and digital modes of access. Our collection has been partially sponsored for digitization by the Internet Archive, to the net result that about 5% of our materials are freely available online, in PDF, ereader, and text-searchable formats. Hundreds of thousands of downloads of books and documents have been facilitated through this system. The digital collection serves people all over the world, and it serves them around the clock.

Access to the physical library is limited to our open hours, yet library visitors have access to twenty times more material than those using just the digital books from our collection. And those visitors have a physical browsing environment to facilitate their access. Often, online access to the digital collection inspires a subsequent, deep visit to the brick-and-mortar library. This is one way that digital access animates the analog shelves.

Digital access events usually rely on query-based retrieval, while visitors to the physical library are immersed in a physical, tactile environment of discovery. Visitors are able to use the process of browsing the shelves as a mode of discovery, and then retrieve some materials they find online, and “have” a copy in digital format. This turns the shelves into a “finding aid” for digital materials, inverting the more familiar experience of using a computer to discover a book and then subsequently getting access to a physical copy.

We find that people can use the library in both ways, and get completely different results from their respective discovery processes. This yields a creative tension between analog and digital modes of discovery.

The Stacks

A clean, well-lighted place

This sounds like I’m emphasizing the differences between analog and digital modes of access, and I am, but with the intent of showing that they can be so different from one another that they complement and do not compete with each other. The physical library offers not just a single irreproducible experience—browsing—but thousands of irreproducible experiences of browsing-based discovery. Looked at in this way, my point is to reframe what’s too often a competition between digital access and analog browsing. I see them as very different, and most effective when they are combined and dovetailed.

In the future we’d like to progress even further beyond these distinctions, and replicate some of the physical browsing process in a digital bookshelf environment, but that would require large-scale digitization.

Even so, however, not all materials are good candidates for digitization: many 18th and 19th century materials, artist’s books, copyrighted materials, periodicals with tipped-in, stapled-in and glued-in layered pages, and very large format materials are just a few kinds of texts that come to mind that are hard, if not impossible, to offer in digital format. Materials for which digital access represents a qualitatively secondary form of access. So there will always be irreproducible advantages to both modes of access—hence a creative tension rather than a competition.

Rick, you’ve said elsewhere that the US in particular is very “media rich,” but also very careless with media, and inclined to throw a lot of it away. What are we throwing out?

RP: Here in the US we produce media on an astonishing scale. Even before the age of personal video production à la YouTube and outside the near-infinite realm of home movies, large and small producers made tens of thousands of training, promotional, and instructional films each year. After video effectively supplanted film in the 1980s, the number of corporate, institutional, and government videos produced became impossible to count. These were usually small productions made for specific purposes at specific times; longevity wasn’t on the minds of their producers, and the works disappeared when their makers or sponsors lost interest or ceased business. It may be easier to understand their ephemerality by thinking of why and how we shoot video with our phones today—ritual recording of everyday experience, a message to a friend or intimate, or an entry in what amounts to an unstructured digital diary without pretensions of permanence. Most of these videos won’t last, either.

What do we lose if they don’t survive?

RP: While most archivists feel that every film and video is unique and every frame is precious, it’s not easy to define what it means to lose some. Retaining many instantiations of similar occurrences (a million Christmases, a hundred auto sales training films) strengthens the corpus of human documentation, but confuses it at the same time, and we can never really know what it means not to have saved everything.

I am intrigued when I’m asked how I feel about our inability to save everything, as if this should make me sad. Why are we so focused on completism? The idea that a complete archives of human activity and experience constitutes a good thing isn’t by any means a new idea, but it gained currency a few years back when technological advances convinced many of us that collecting and preserving everything was possible. Then, just as in feature bloat, possibility turned into desirability. The data firehose has convinced us that selection is impossible, and we assume that decisions as to what we save will be determined purely by our IT capabilities. That cultural and social criteria (not to mention power differentials) might actively determine what we preserve—well, that’s turned into an oldskool idea.

From outside the archive world, it looks as though there is a split between archivists who carefully select things to preserve, and those scrambling to save everything. It sounds like you’re closer to the former group.

MSP: We are careful selectors, nowhere near the “save everything” end of the continuum. What’s most interesting to us is to build our own very specific collection, and in doing so model ways of collection-building that could be useful to other people. We want to embody the idea that everyone can be their own archivist. If more people carefully chose a collection of evidence to save, then there would be less of a need for people to save everything. Libraries like ours can be built by anyone, anywhere. We do have a particular collecting strategy, but we are just two people.

RP: We absolutely cannot save everything. And we shouldn’t. Loss is formative. Absence is necessary to truly understand presence. I would never advocate the intentional destruction of cultural materials, which is quite often an act of aggression. On the other hand, many of the emergent historical discourses of the past forty years were spurred by the sense that materials were sparse, lost, or destroyed. I’m thinking of working-class history, African American history, women’s history. A perceived lack of traditional historical evidence caused scholars and, critically, interested lay people to look harder, dig deeper, and search in unanticipated places. And now these histories flourish.

How do you prioritize what should be saved in your own collections?

RP: Our library acquisition and retention policy is, frankly, subjective and unwritten. As for film, we collect all home movies shot in North America or by North Americans abroad. We seek to build a complete visual history of North America and its inhabitants in the 20th century—that’s at least as complete as we can, using home movies.

MSP: We are really interested in ephemeral evidence: What kind of picture of history is revealed by forgotten literature? What’s been left out of the canon of memory? What’s of visual interest? What’s been overlooked within the public domain? We use questions like these as a guide, and then we look closely at what’s being discarded by libraries and collectors. With this strategy it’s possible to strike some really rich veins. (We also buy materials sometimes, and receive many donations from like-minded community members.)

Free Speech Fear Free

Neon installation, “The Patriot Act,” by artist Vanessa Renwick

We are working toward a composite picture of American history, formed by of a multitude of these rich veins of ephemeral evidence: Trade literature, government documents, illustrated technical periodicals, zines, small-press books, maps, pamphlet literature—each of these types of literature holds hidden riches. For that reason we are more focused on such ephemera than on “books,” per se.

I know the Prelinger Library is very much a working library, and that you both have a lot going on. What projects are you engaged in right now?

MSP: I am writing a book that’s a visual history of electronics (Inside the Machine: Electronics and the Modern Century). It is based on a study of industrial literature, in which commercial artists depicted electronics components using visual language inspired by modernism. It is forthcoming from W.W. Norton in 2014. Together, Rick and I are artists-in-residence at the Exploratorium, and we are building an exhibit called the Observatory Library, that is about observing San Francisco Bay, both its built and natural environment. The exhibit has several parts, a book collection, moving image loops, and a series of historical atlases that we are writing using collected and digitized ephemera, both from our own library and from other repositories. The Observatory Library will be public starting in April of 2013.

RP: I’m working on No More Road Trips?, a feature-length documentary film about the past and future of motor travel in America. There’s reason to think we’re traveling less and may drive less in the future. Are precarity, the high cost of fuel, the increasing age of new drivers, and the slowdown in car ownership significant factors in keeping us off the road? Is the frontier that we once reached by long drives beginning to close in? Will localism triumph? The form of the film is a dream road trip built through home movies without sound. The audience (facilitated by an MC) who will make the soundtrack, talking throughout the movie. Coming to the screen in the spring.

In closing, could you introduce us to an artifact—or set of them—in your collection? Something you’re particularly interested in right now?

MSP: We are excited about our relatively recent collection of Civilian Conservation Corps camp newsletters. These were mimeographed newsletters written and produced by CCC members to inform and entertain one another. The newsletters were produced all across the country between 1933 and 1943. They are filled with quirky language, local humor, and a rich record of everyday life as experienced by CCC workers.

I am also very focused, myself, right now on the Proceedings of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. That is one amazing journal, the “Proc IEEE.” In the 1960s it featured amazing modern art about electronics on its covers, and it ran articles with historical and social relevance supplementing its mostly technical articles. It is still the leading engineering technical journal, but it had a “golden era” of 1962-1974 that I am immersed in right now.

About Megan Shaw Prelinger

Megan Shaw Prelinger is a writer, artist, and naturalist. She is the author of Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957-1962 (2010), and the forthcoming Inside the Machine: Electronics and the Modern Century. Both books are part of her study of the relationship between art and technology in the 20th century, research she has lectured on around the country and to international audiences. She is also an artist-in-residence at the Exploratorium. She is co-founder, with Rick, of the Prelinger Library, and is the designer of the library’s geospatial arrangement system. Her work has been profiled in the New York Times, Harper’s, and Make: Technology on Your Time. She also leads urban naturalist walks with San Francisco Nature Education.

About Rick Prelinger

Rick Prelinger is an archivist, writer and filmmaker. His collection of 60,000 ephemeral films was acquired by Library of Congress in 2002. Beginning in 2000, he partnered with Internet Archive to make 2,100 (soon to be 5,000) films available online for free viewing, downloading and reuse. His archival feature Panorama Ephemera (2004) played in venues around the world, and his new feature project No More Road Trips? received a Creative Capital grant in 2012. His Lost Landscapes projects have played to many thousands of viewers in San Francisco, Detroit and elsewhere. He is a board member of Internet Archive and frequently writes and speaks on the future of archives and issues relating to archival access and regeneration. With Megan, he co-founded the Prelinger Library in 2004.