The Prelinger Library: A public externalisation of your brain

[The following is an edited conversation with Rick and Megan Prelinger about their archive space in San Francisco which took place on May 20, 2015]

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Every wednesday, The Prelinger library opens to the public and starts with an orientation. Megan introduces the space as “a research environment, appropriation workshop and a conversation positive space”. There are only two rules: the first is to be friendly to bindings, and the second one is—I can’t remember.

“We love this place” says Rick, “and Wednesdays are especially fascinating”. Wednesday is weird random visitors day so its the perfect time for me drop in for a cup of tea. (The Librarium has actually been here before when Tessa Zettel dropped in during 2012. You can read her post here.)

“We think of the library as a platform where other people can come here and do their own thing. We’ve really only just started with that; we’re really excited because we want more people to come and use this space.”

To help orient myself, I made a little cranial roadmap to work my way through the million tangential threads I wanted to pick up on during my conversation. Following the central organising conceit of the Prelinger cataloging system—a geospatial taxonomy—I naturally started in San Francisco itself and the importance of place in an era of super-saturated-spatialised-capital.

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Rick and Megan originally met through their common interests in landscapes and landscapes histories. They soon began collaborating in work and life.

MEGAN: We’ve since gone in a million other directions but that was our first point of connection and our first collaboration. So it made sense since this is a personal project we each independently of each other started with the landscape focus and moved out from there.

RICK: It’s a taxonomy that rises out of the collection—when Megan sat down with a diagram and post-it notes and composed the organisation schema for the library, it was really based on what (titles) we had, and based on the logic of what arose out of our interests.

MEGAN: I tried to say that…

RICK: You tried to say that?

MEGAN: Maybe I just said it differently?

RICK: We work from material itself to see what it tells us inductively

Smells like permaculture, I say.

RICK: If you look at the principles of Permaculture like the arc of 12, valuing diversity and the fact that innovation happens at the edges—this library is all about the non-monetised transactions that occur between us and our guests between our guests and the collection forming a triangle. It’s a nice permacultural thing; it’s a repository that became a workshop; making things in the process of connecting.

MEGAN: It started like an unconscious project, like a dream that we woke up from unconsciously. Without having put it into language, it was just happening. This particular understanding of our practice just unfolded in the first three or four years.

RICK: We opened in 2004 and announced to about 60 friends who came and helped us unpack all the books into the shelves from approximately 4000 boxes. It was this amazing eight day party where people would stop to read and then we would feed them and then we would go on outings at night; it was a really wonderful utopian house raising. It took a couple of years to finish sorting the collection and now we just have a backlog of the ephemera which we will finish sorting towards the end of the summer—it will be a highly disciplined affair.

I remembered the other rule: Don’t touch the ephemera. Lets get back to that in a moment.

This was a great opportunity to divulge that The Prelinger cataloguing system had indeed been adopted and adapted to a small library in an artist led space Kunci in Yopgyakarta Indonesia for a brief time during August last year. Kunci’s resident librarian—autodidact Acong who is, among other things, also an extremely beautiful artist—and I spent 3 glorious weeks fucking with the Dewey Decimal system, transposing the White European Male knowledge-system temporarily into the Mbak Dewi System—a young javanese female knowledge. (Dewey mispronounced by Indonesians sounds like Dewi, a common female javanese name; Mbak is the female pronoun for a young girl or ‘sister’)

After grazing a few alternative cataloguing systems, Acong and I eventually settled on a sample reorganising of the library based on the geospatial taxonomy of The Prelinger. This resulted in some very interesting book sculptures and was a thoroughly enjoyable exercise for both of us. Experimenting with this view on nuanced collections also enabled Acong and the broader Kunci collective to let go of the anxiety of not having a comprehensive representation of academically demarcated sections; moreover, this genetic footprint of their collection figured more significantly as a dynamic map of the various users and contributors to the space over time.

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So, obvious question, what is the relationship between the map and the archive?

MEGAN: There is no point of junction for us; the first probably being one of the drivers for developing this library in the first place was to formulate an environment for research in which the process of research could be infused with at least some of the excitement from just being out and walking around in the world….and open stack and open shelf and specialisation with a specialised arrangement schema is a very innate human way of learning—that is through a physical exploration that could be reintroduced into a research environment. That was one of the earliest impetus to do a project like this in the first place.

What are the intersections between a civic collection and a private collection?

MEGAN: We tend to retreat from the characterisation that this is a private archive even though technically it is, but we probably want to think beyond public-private binaries. So we call it a personal collection that belongs to the community on the days that it open, and a transactional space where the community (half local and half regional/international) both shapes and is shaped by it.

At this point, Lindsey the researcher in residence and volunteer enters the library, and punctuates our conversation with mini cupcakes. Unbeknownst to Lindsey she was helping spread the deadly gentrification virus, known in Australia for wiping out entire artist-led habitat. I WAS HORRIFIED.

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Lindsey describes the strip of mechanics and the  surprising quirky mini cupcake stall nestled within. Megan describes the motorcycle mechanics and coffee place as spaces that would struggle to qualify in the same way as a suburban mechanic shop—one being a dyke owned electrical vehicle place, open 24 hours, and with a logo a tongue in the shape of a wrench.

What happens to a space like the Prelinger library in the context of neoliberal projects like the share-economy ? 

RICK: The city is crowded, overtaxed and mean; people have been displaced at a level that we’ve never seen before. Eviction rates are very very high; fifteen years ago the same apartment I rented for $1500 a month is now $3000you would not believe the rents that people are asked to pay so the city is changing and the city is very very stressed.

Well, coming from Sydney, sometimes I think this is all I (we) talk about.

I’m interested to tease out what ‘scarcity’ of space means in this context, and the ways in which an aggressive expropriation of the commons renders these kinds of hybrid public/private spaces like libraries even more important.

Megan agrees, referring to the large number of people who come to libraries to seek refuge from the world, pointing to the additional social welfare demands increasingly shifted onto libraries and and librarians.

As an example, Rick cites the full-time social worker who is hired by the San Francisco library specifically to respond to these high needs segment of the library community, many who also just come to the library to access the internet service. “I know people friends of mine who are librarians in public libraries in New York City where they have had to deal with issues that migrate from the streets into the library, like violence, weapons, and interpersonal violence—it’s really complicated. Libraries and librarians have been pretty amazing about maintaining the democratic open space of libraries but that had to institute some changes. Like you can’t bring in big packs you can’t be too unsightly you cannot behave inhospitable or smell too bad or start accosting people. To be an urban public librarian now is to also be a social worker and a provider of services that you weren’t trained for and are not being paid for.”

MEGAN: The US as a social experiment has never been more hard edged than it is right now

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The role of libraries as historicising vehicles opens up the urgency for nuanced and particular collections that emerge from communities-of-kind. The Librarium emerged from the good fortune of two handsome bookshelves donated to the space and a large collection of ephemera from Indonesia’s resistance movement against the New order Regime, and consisted of posters, pins, badges, leaflets and a million zines. These traces of cultural and political evidence I think are the most exciting element of our library and we are still discussing about how to display ephemera.

If you could go wild and crazy, what would your ultimate display vehicle for ephemera look like?

First, Megan explains, she would want to make sure it was protected from light, dust and changes in humidity.

“So one vision in the archival vision is where everything is perfectly boxed and the boxes are tantalisingly clear as to what does or what probably lies inside them”

Rick introduces the ephemera boxes carefully removing each item from the lair. “So, acid free containers, acid free envelopes, and we take the adhesive off—here’s a course in correspondence filing; some of these are homemade but they are acid free”

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“On the other hand”—Megan ponders the evidence exhibit—“at the other end of a certain continuum in a kind of utopia all the evidence would be completely visible and browseable at the same time that it was somehow protected. I’d love to have a wall of, kind of, shallow shelves.”

RICK: Like a stack you pull out?

Like a stamp museum. Megan starts to fantasise…

MEGAN: Like, if you are shopping for rock and roll posters and you can just physically open up some sort of container that holds the things flat but are totally visible. But you would need a football field to house a collection our size. So there are these different dimensions to utopia.

I would like to live in a Utopia that has many dimensions.

RICK: This is our little utopian experiment and we feel the endorphins

MEGAN: This is the public externalisation of our brains.

IMG_9098[Many thanks to Rick and Megan and Lindsey for sharing their time, thoughts and cups of tea!] XXX

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