Email this article to a friend

Megan Shaw Prelinger organizes her library according to "a map of my brain."

Creating the 21st Century Library

The Prelinger Library eschews the Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress systems, and is organized instead by what Megan Shaw Prelinger calls “a map of my brain”

BY Aaron Sarver

When you enter the Prelinger Library in San Francisco, the first thing you notice is “rock star” librarian Nancy Pearl–in action figure form. It’s the first hint that you’ve stepped inside an unconventional library. Megan and Rick Prelinger’s vision of engaged learning is at odds with the weighty atmosphere that often pervades spaces containing 40,000 items–ranging from books to maps to films–intended for research purposes. Rick first achieved fame in the archivist world when his collection of 60,000 16mm educational films, known as the Prelinger Archive, was purchased by the Library of Congress in 2002.

Three years later, after the dot com bust had dragged down commercial rents, the couple leased a 1,700-square-foot warehouse space in San Francisco’s SoMa (South of Market) neighborhood and moved their massive book collection out of storage. (This is what happens when two archivists gets married.) Four long, 15-foot-high rows of bookshelves loom over guests, but the extraordinarily high ceilings make the book towers less imposing. Boxes of “ephemera” sit neatly stacked up against the far left row. And the back of the library has an unruly pile of boxes of books waiting to be shelved.

The Prelinger Library eschews the Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress systems, and is organized instead by what Megan calls “a map of my brain.” Books are grouped by topic, in a related fashion. Western U.S. history merges into agriculture, which merges into urban planning. Since space is limited, there is a decent amount of churn. Under-used items are phased out and new ones brought in. During my visit, a few boxes of the recently defunct magazine Punk Planet had just arrived. With funding from the Internet Archive, the Prelinger Library is digitally scanning the books in its collection that are not under copyright protection for use on archive.org.

In These Times recently sat down to talk with Megan Shaw Prelinger.

What makes someone start her own library?

One of the multiple barriers put in place by major research libraries is that they don’t enable ordinary people to make use of extraordinary materials. So the idea of making a library was fed by my experience that college and university libraries’ closed stacks inhibit browsing and the process of random discovery. I always felt like I had my best ideas or developed my best projects when I was wandering and looking for certain things, but then finding things I didn’t expect.

How did this “process of random discovery” inform how you structured your library?

Even at public libraries, the subjects I was interested in were scattered. They were either not present at all or organized in a way that made no intuitive sense to me. Neither Dewey Decimal nor Library of Congress as an organization method made any intuitive sense to me. It’s like organizing your record collection or book collection at home. I’ve always used organization as a way to create juxtapositions and cluster little sets of coherency in my own book collection in a way that pleases me.

Is it fair to say that your organization of materials is an implicit critique of the way people are taught to learn or to research? That you want to explore ideas in the way that someone like Walter Benjamin did, rather than through a rigid system imposed by very structured institutions?

I think it’s an explicit critique. We tell people that you’re going to find things “intershelved.” You’re going to find government documents next to nonfiction and fiction. Materials are clustered by subject and we want people to have the shelf be an experience unto itself.

If it doesn’t occur to you or it isn’t explained to you that printed ephemera, historic magazines, photograph collections, maps, fiction can all be equally meaningful to your area of inquiry, you might not know to look for those things. So we try to create a browsing experience that can’t be had anywhere else. People come in and ask, “There’s no computer?” They have been trained to formulate a query rather than just engaging the shelves unmediated.

How do you think the digitization of books should effect how libraries manage their print collections?

In the library and document preservation worlds, there exists a concern that the growth of the digital environment will result in the end of print, and that books and newspapers need to be rescued from the digital future. I don’t believe that. Books as artifacts will always have value apart from their digital counterparts.

Yes, the online environment obviously offers mass dispersal into the world and that’s not possible in a print library environment. But part of our library project is about collapsing the polarization between print and digital, and looking toward a third way where a library can be a hybrid analog-digital space. Books are both retained and valued, and where a digital collection exists, maybe it allows more freedom with what the analog collection can do, because you can always do a keyword search of the digital collection. Maybe the benefits of one liberate the other.

How much consideration does the Prelinger Library give to creating a public space where scholars and regular patrons can meet each other?

A lot of living and contemporary authors donate materials to the library. People will pick up a book and say, “I didn’t know about this book,” and we’ll tell them the author is a professor at Berkeley and that he has said you could go talk to him. When you’re browsing at a terminal, you’re not going to bump elbows with someone who’s interested in the same things.

Are there any specific things you’re looking to add to the collection?

We look to preserve the historiography of underreported historical narratives–primarily North American because that’s our history. Usually when things like that become available, we want them.

Page 1 of 2 Continued »

Aaron Sarver is an independent audio producer and writer based in Chicago. His work has appeared in In These Times, The Chicago Reader, Alternet.org, and on Free Speech Radio News. For nearly three years he produced and co-hosted the radio program, Fire on the Prairie, which featured interviews with progressive writers and activists, and is archived at fireontheprairie.com.

View Comments