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Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

Unshelving surprises in the stacks of the Prelinger Library

A shelf crammed full of ephemera at San Francisco's Prelinger Library.
Sarah Jessee, KALW
A shelf crammed full of ephemera at San Francisco's Prelinger Library.

In an era of digital media, it’s rare to come across a treasure trove of print materials. But that’s precisely San Francisco’s Prelinger Library’s purpose: to collect, categorize, and make “ephemeral” material—like maps, brochures, advertisements and catalogs—available to any and everyone who believes our past can pave a path to a better future.

Wandering through the Prelinger Library’s stacks, you have to be prepared to move the occasional ladder. They’re hefty, industrial-looking things, and they’re there to help you reach the materials on the highest shelves that stretch all the way up to the ceiling.

But one of my favorite pieces at the Prelinger is easy to access. Like a lot of the materials here, it’s a book that most people have never seen—or even heard of. The cover is hand-drawn, and it features a classical-looking pillar that stands out against a red sky. The copyright page reads…a little differently.

MEGAN: Instead of a copyright notice it says: Do copy. Do something. No rights reserved, no wrongs preserved.

The book is called “Revolting Librarians,” and it’s a handbook for something called “radical librarianship.”

RICK: The cliches about quiet, dust, people saying shush… those ideas are years out of  the window, now. This is an action-focused place. 

MEGAN: As a way of getting ready for what we’re living through now. 

MEGAN: You know: the roses along with the bread and the voices in the streets.

These particular “revolting librarians” are Rick and Megan Prelinger. They’re soft-spoken folks with punk pasts. This library they founded is exactly what the authors of that book are talking about. It’s not the norm.

First of all: the location. It’s above a carpet store. In a former industrial laundromat. Across from a pole dancing studio. When you enter the library, there’s a giant neon sign that’s the closest thing the Prelingers have to a mission statement. It reads “Free speech, fear free.” Meaning: you’re safe to explore here… and there is A LOT explore.

RICK: We sometimes joke this library is 98% bad ideas.

The room feels like a big storage space—cement floors, 12 foot high ceilings, almost no windows. You can’t check books out, but you can stay and flip through them (with a cup of tea that Rick + Megan offer). When I was there, another visitor brought in her homemade hazelnut brittle to share.

And the biggest difference? Typically libraries hold onto “official documentation.” This library is filled with ephemera.

RICK: Ephemera—from the Greek—means short-lived. There’s a group of insects called ‘ephemera’ because they just  live a day. 

RICK: We have many printed objects that were made for specific purposes at specific times 

RICK: …a map, a brochure, a piece of advertising…

…a soil sample report from 1913, decades-worth of TV Guides, and the hyper-local government-sponsored nature book: “A Hundred Birds of Heron’s Head Park.” (That one has an awkward-looking photo of a very-young Gavin Newsom on the inside cover.)

RICK: Thing about ephemera is that it’s the short term document that is often more revealing. It’s like a provisional idea, it’s a risk …

The idea is: people are more likely to speak freely when they don’t think what they say is going to last. (Social media is a perfect example of this.) And what’s the “vintage” version of Instagram Stories? Ephemera.

RICK: And so I started collecting material that illuminated the history of everyday life.

If you’re someone interested in film — Rick has also been gathering non-print bits of ephemera for decades, too.

Things like: clips of 1950s housewives making their husbands do the housework, so they can make the case for a new washer/dryer…early television news reports, with weirdly familiar ideas about climate change...and strident propaganda films from the 1930s—like this one called: “Let’s Go America.”

For over a decade, Rick has presented a film-length version of these kinds of clips at a screening called Lost Landscapes.

RICK: And so all of that gives you a picture of the world that’s a lot more actionable — it’s about change, it’s about influence, it’s about intention.

Without the Prelingers’ intention, none of this would be here.

Rick and Megan were pen pals before they were partners in business, and in life. They began living together here in California in the 90s. And the rest is, well…history.  

RICK: Shortly after we met we pooled our vinyl, and it seemed natural that from then on we should pool our text collections.

They had much more than they could store in their apartment. So they found this space and they decided to open it to the public in 2004.

MEGAN: We had a week-long barn raising, invited everyone we knew.

MEGAN:  …and we treated it as a weeklong shelving party. 

MEGAN:  And the collection had all these hands on it, and all these minds touching it …

RICK: People would be shelving on the higher shelves and everything would slow down because they started to read, right?

When the world started to get a lot more digital in the 1990s, libraries started to clear out their catalogs. An off-the-radar network of like-minded librarians brought the “discards” to Rick and Megan’s attention. Their loss was the Prelingers’ gain. 

RICK: Ooo…so this is wonderful. This came from the Kansas City Public Library. 

RICK: Let’s pull one and look here. Modern Packaging is the journal for the Packing Industry, and it’s filled with samples. 

RICK: You know, like, special coated stock, labels that have been tipped in, samples of cellophane ice cream wrappers, and decorative foils…

Megan created a unique organization system that encourages people to slow down, browse, bump into each other…and share ideas about everything from transit history to labor movements to queer zines.

MEGAN: We’re at the starting point in the taxonomic structure, right where our feet meet the ground here in San Francisco, looking at a shelf about San Francisco neighborhoods. *RUN UNDER)

It starts with material about the library’s literal location—San Francisco histories—and then runs deep and wide.

MEGAN: An entire shelf on California water: water issues and water plans in California…

And then: a whole area dedicated to transportation—where you’ll often find Jay, a retired BART manager, flipping through transit scrapbooks. Eventually the way the collection is organized evolves into more abstract ideas: human-made concepts like human rights…

MEGAN: We have a section here on California’s utopian legacy, as expressed in the landscape, culture and people of the state…

And finally, at the very end of the stacks: outer space.

RICK: We could have built this library a lot of places… but here—at the community level—there’s a real sense that the past and the future are intertwined. 

The Prelinger channels the spirit of discovery and reinvention that the Bay Area stands for.

MEGAN: In San Francisco, you always have the Bay, as a stretch of water around some corner. // And I do think that’s something that’s very special, and it contributes to // inquiry, and invention.  

The library, like the city, is built to surprise you. And every now and then: you stumble across something special.

This story was made to be heard, click the play button above to listen

This story aired in the January 17, 2024 episode of Crosscurrents.

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I’m a strategist and storyteller who’s loved audio — and radio specifically — as long as I can remember. After studying radio documentary at the Salt Institute, I contributed to Snap Judgment and WVTF News before bringing my storytelling skills to the marketing world. I’m happy to be back where I feel I belong: the public radio community.