How to explain what Rick and Megan Prelinger are up to? The California couple searches out all that stuff you probably saw and read in your childhood -- films about corn production, home movies of Detroit, propaganda manuals about good manners -- and collects it. When a library has to get rid of a roomful of old books because of budget cuts or to expand its computer center, it's the Prelingers to the rescue.
WalletPop's Jason Cochran visited their 5-year-old library in San Francisco to give you a closer look:
"Public libraries are under enormous pressure for how to use space," says co-founder Megan Prelinger. "They very often have to get rid of something old every time something new comes in." Often, they dump publications that have to do with business, industry, landscape, land use -- all things that can still be useful to us as we figure out how to plan for tomorrow.
"Libraries have to throw things away for many reasons, and it's almost never because the material isn't valuable," she says.
So much of what Americans have seen and read on a daily basis, from trade publications to drive-in movie ads to 'zines (to videos like this one), escapes the interest of libraries and archives. So much of American history has the potential of simply slipping away unnoticed because no facility has the budget or the specialized interest to preserve it.
"Our collection constitutes an interesting picture of 20th century American history that's not always represented in public libraries," says co-founder Megan Prelinger.
Despite maintaining such a collection, the Prelingers aren't librarians. Rick is a media historian and a filmmaker, and Megan is a writer. Which is not to say the two interests don't dovetail: She used her family collection to write a gorgeous new book. Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957-1962, amasses the most sumptuous and fanciful pop art from the period, and it was collected from the pages of her free collection. It comes out in May.
"We're just citizens. We're doing this as citizen historians. And anyone can do that," she says. They rented the space for the collection right after the dot-com bust, when it was going for 90 cents a square foot.
Too often, the Prelingers learned, what we throw away as worthless today may turn out to have value tomorrow. Somewhere thirty or forty years back, we may uncover a crossroads we took in our thinking or in the development of an idea, and discover it may be worth exploring that alternate route again. In fact, of the 1,000 people who come visit the library each year in San Francisco's SoMa district, many are people seeking raw materials to inspire new ideas.
"The past says a lot about the future," she says. "We're still in many of the same patterns and historical currents that were set in motion decades ago."
The moving image version of their collection is online as the Prelinger Archives, and anyone can visit the brick-and-mortar print Prelinger Library in San Francisco, which also has about 3,700 digital books online. All of it is free. The Prelingers want everyone to use their materials -- "to use it up, if need be," says Megan.
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