Knocking on Mnemosyne’s Door: Part 2

This week’s returning author, Marshall Reese, is an artist working in new technologies, video, installations, artists books and limited editions. He has worked in collaboration with Nora Ligorano as LigoranoReese for over two decades.

This blog post is part of periodic series from contributor Marshall Reese that focuses on “outsider archivists,” people who highlight the tensions between traditional and born-digital archives and the transition between the two. Mnemosyne is the Greek goddess of memory, the mother of the nine muses. Her significance only seems to grow as we externalize more and more of information, data, and records. 

The Vernacular Library

In the South of Market neighborhood of San Francisco, located just North of where Route 80 intersects 101 on 8th Street, traffic rumbles through the wide streets heading to the freeways for the East and South Bays. Even though software and tech companies have made inroads over the past decade, it still feels like an industrial, working class neighborhood interspersed with auto repair shops, bars, and warehouses.

It’s hard to imagine tourists venturing here, or when they do, lavishing such praise about one of the neighborhood’s more noteworthy establishments:

I fell in love with this place.

… it was my favorite place that I visited :)!!!

What an amazing hidden treasure!

I love this library… be prepared never to leave…[1]

The subject of their adoration, strangely enough, is the Prelinger Library, a private library tucked away in a two-story, converted warehouse. Since the Prelinger Library opened 15 years ago, over 1200 people visit annually to volunteer, do research, attend lectures, and hear concerts. Megan and Rick Prelinger founded the Library in 2004, six years after Rick had sent her a fan email out of the blue. At that time, Rick was scouting the internet searching for landscape writers in his efforts to revive J.B. Jackson’s Landscape magazine. Their relationship crystalized over shared interests in landscape history and the punk subculture.

The Prelinger Library is always high on my To Do list every time I visit San Francisco. When crossing the Library’s threshold, the seriousness of the Prelingers’ commitment is immediately apparent: floor to ceiling stacks brimming with books and ephemera stretch from the entrance to the back walls and usually a volunteer or maybe even Megan or Rick greet you.

Melinda Stone examines the Prelinger Library's map collection with her University of San Francisco students
Melinda Stone examines the Library’s map collection with her University of San Francisco students. (Photo: Megan Shaw Prelinger, 2018)

It’s taken me several visits over the years to learn and comprehend what the Prelinger Library is, exactly. It’s much more than a “library.” Rather, their careful curation has built a collection more akin to contemporary research-based art practices that use documentary sources and archives than a traditional lending library. Many of the Prelinger Library’s visitors are artists themselves using the library’s varied resources for their own art projects. The Prelingers’ intent is transforming “the library” into a new type of performative space through social reading and collaborative knowledge building.

In a recent email exchange with Megan, she told me: “We started the Library in 2004 to offer a community workshop around a historical collection, to intervene into historical amnesia, and offer a platform for the discoverability and dissemination of public domain materials (among other physical materials), to enact a politics of free access, and to experiment in analog–digital hybridity. The subsequent fifteen years have validated all of these initiatives and educated us about many ways that visitors can put materials to use beyond what we imagined.”

Megan and Rick started assembling their library at a time of great volatility when library collections of physical objects were in transition. Many of their holdings are deaccessioned from other libraries but throughout their project’s existence, they have carved a special niche preserving and curating—what I would call “vernacular materials”—that are often the last, if ever, to digitize: zines, scrapbooks, artists books, and printed ephemera. In the early years, the Library was inundated with materials available for minimal cost, as libraries struggled with the economic and technological pressures of digitizing their collections.

“Stories of book collections being discarded at the dawn of the digital age dominated a public crisis in the value of physical books. Years later, it’s become clear that physical materials perform certain roles that digital collections may never play. Community, discoverability, and serendipity are all better provided by physical collections than digital environments.

Coupled with that, there is a profound bias toward the present that is tacitly embedded in digital knowledge economies. While many institutional digital archives are historical, an initial search in Yahoo! or Google for any general inquiry will not offer a historical perspective. The most powerful takeaway for us has been that physical objects can convene community in real life, and that live communities satisfy our human desires for conversation and collaborative knowledge-building in very different ways from how online communities serve users.”

As recently published books on the subject of libraries as well as Frederick Wiseman’s film on the New York Public Library Ex Libris affirm, libraries continue to play an essential role in building and restoring the idea of community.[2]One of the central premises underpinning Megan and Rick’s Library is the idea of social reading.

“We’re social readers ourselves, having long observed that the received image of reading as solitary activity is incomplete. Reading activities are just as often social as solitary (think of study groups, literary events, and sharing newspapers). Social reading is especially important for collaborative research, which is essential to our role as infrastructure for the arts community. Yet social reading is discouraged in institutional libraries. Our universe of visitors has been enthusiastic to our open stacks and ‘noise positive’ environment.”

Within the first year of the Library’s opening, one of the primary constituent groups visiting and using it were artists. They, as did I, responded not only to it as a resource of extremely interesting materials but as a large-scale art installation centered on curation and collection along the lines of Hanna Darboven, Theaster Gates, and others. The Prelinger Library has hosted hundreds of school visits from the California College of Arts and the San Francisco Art Institute and has inspired writers, playwrights, filmmakers, and architectural students who often incorporate many of the Library’s materials into their work. A series of artists’ talks initiated by Nicole Lavelle has morphed into an ongoing series, now co-curated by Charlie Macquarie, that regularly draws 60-90 attendees to the Library. There have been over 25 talks spanning 5 seasons.

Place Talks, Prelinger Library

After their first year, Megan and Rick began moving their library practice beyond the walls of 8th Street, developing projects with the Exploratorium and SFMOMA. It has been an organic process growing out from their individual practices. Megan’s own writing and projects in the late 90s had led her to connect research-based writing with installation art while Rick had been performing public history in the form of film screenings to audiences around the country for many years. His Lost Landscape film series, in which he encourages the audience to be vocal and respond to the film scenes they are seeing, plays to packed movie houses around the world.

“Bringing our joint practice into a Museum context was consistent with the Library. Our Exploratorium exhibit is the Observatory Library. It is based on historical materials, and our exhibit development work is driven by the Library and also informed by work that we both do outside of it, Rick’s work as a film archivist and interpreter of radio and telecommunications infrastructure, and my work as a naturalist. We’ve also created several other smaller off-site library installations in different contexts such as Maker Faire and Earth Day.

The infrastructure for SFMOMA collaboration is a multi-year partnership between SFMOMA and the San Francisco Public Library called Public Knowledge. We are among 400 collaborators to which we have made just a couple of modest contributions along the way concerning issues about the loss of cultural memory through the disruption of knowledge and the privatization of information and resources.”

In addition to the Library, Rick speaks and presents frequently at conferences and colloquia about his research and work in film archives. He has assembled one of the largest collections of industrial films and home movies in the United States that he has been actively collecting since the 1980’s. It’s not hyperbole to say that almost any archival film scene seen on TV or in the movies has probably come from the Prelinger Archives. (The Library of Congress holds over 60,000 of his films and more than 4,000 films are accessible as free downloads from the Internet Archive.)

From the outset Megan and Rick aimed for the Library to be an ongoing experiment in analog-digital hybridity focusing on browser-friendly environments for research in contrast to more reductive query articulated strategies.

“Today most libraries users are greeted with a computer terminal and prompted to formulate a query. It compels visitors to state in simple terms inquiries that might be nebulous or complex. It also demands that visitors know in advance what they are looking for, and forecloses the process of associative discovery. Browsing-based discoverability can enable a visitor’s line of inquiry to develop in space and time as they browse library materials and are influenced by the process of discovery.”

In 2006 the Library began building a digital books collection, sponsored and hosted by the Internet Archive with funds donated by the Open Content Alliance.

“The Library’s open shelves suddenly gained the capacity to act as a finding aid to materials that could then be accessed digitally—a reversal of the common situation in which physical materials are indexed in digital databases. The success of that initiative, together with our lived experience of facilitating access to the physical collection, has fueled our shared conviction that the future of access to information is not “analog or digital,” but analog and digital.”

The Library went a step further in this direction when a Prelinger Library user, artist, and programmer Devin Smith, voluntarily created the Stacks Explorer, a virtual browsing environment that presents a navigable view of the Library enabling remote users to explore the Library’s shelves. The Stacks Explorer is the highest form of expression to date of the Library’s long-term existence as a hybrid analog-digital research environment.

Prelinger Library Stacks Explorer
Prelinger Library Stacks Explorer

“After photographing every bookshelf in the Library, Smith knit the images into six composite photographs, one for each row of shelves. A scroll over these composite images lets visitors “fly” through the shelves, and a mouse click on any shelf brings that shelf into close visibility in a second window — close enough to easily browse the spines. A sidebar features a detailed text-based subject listing given in the same geospatial flow order as the shelf materials they summarize. The listing includes links to downloadable copies of the Library’s books that have been digitized at the Internet Archive.”

Behind the desks where I often have sat at the Library, facing out from one of the shelves, hangs a talisman of sorts that sums up much of what Megan and Rick are doing: a plastic Librarian action figure. Though less than one foot high it stands as a focal point for all the energies the Library fosters and creates, more urgent and fervent than the manufacturer describes as “an homage to the warriors of the printed (and electronic) word that keep fighting for literacy in the face of dwindling budgets and the decline of the printed word… a world where information swirls around us like a tornado.”[3]

[1] Google Reviews taken from,1

[2] See Susan Halpern’s In Praise of Public Libraries,


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