Collect Calling

Since selling his world-famous film archive to the Library of Congress, Rick Prelinger's been busy saving 40,000 magazines, newspapers, and government documents from history's dustbin. He wants you to take a look.

But a full understanding of the odd and contradictory world of Rick Prelinger -- in which then and now often collide, or at least mix heavily -- requires, of course, a glimpse at his own past.

The oldest of four children, Prelinger is the son of a Yale University psychology professor and a well-educated housewife. He grew up in New Haven, Conn., with privilege, both financial and emotional: His parents sent him to the finest private schools and never failed to support and encourage young Ricky's eccentric hobbies.

Many of his childhood interests were related to gaining access to, in his verbiage, "forbidden knowledge." At age 8 or so, Prelinger became a television enthusiast -- but not because he liked the shows. He says he would wake up before dawn to watch TV station test patterns, copiously jotting down in a notebook any technical information displayed on the screen.

Stephen Parr, who runs a smaller archive, often 
debates with Prelinger about the best way to provide 
public access.
Paolo Vescia
Stephen Parr, who runs a smaller archive, often debates with Prelinger about the best way to provide public access.

He discovered shortwave radio when he was 9 and became fascinated with the audio information that he could clandestinely intercept. His intense interest in shortwave radio and radio scanning continued into his mid-20s. There was no purpose, really, for listening in on the internal conversations of police, private businesses, and undercover agencies; it just pleased him to have access to a secret world.

During his adolescence, he began to develop an interest in history, reading voraciously and making frequent trips to the local library to look at old photographs of New Haven and compare them to more recent pictures. "My parents definitely tried hard to nurture me as a brainy kid," Prelinger says. "No one was trying to talk me out of my geeky interests."

He went to high school at the academically rigorous Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., where he developed a taste for punk rock and other things countercultural, and, after graduation, moved to California and UC Berkeley. He dropped out after a little more than a year, lived in various East Coast cities working as a typesetter, and soon returned to San Francisco, taking classes at Cal part time. He found an apartment on Guy Place, a small SOMA alley that happened to be near a film-processing business. By then, his interest in cultural discards had crystallized, and he began wading around in the dumpsters after hours, looking for "trash photographs."

In 1980, he moved to New York, hoping to become a filmmaker, but he mostly helped other filmmakers do footage research. And once he saw When You Are a Pedestrian, filmmaking fell by the wayside, and he began collecting movies as a way to live out his negotiation of past and present. But as he continued to collect, he discovered a world of industrial and educational films that could be wonderfully kitschy and all too telling of an idealized, middle-class, white American life from a bygone era.

There were films like The Home Economics Story, made in the 1950s to promote Iowa State College's home ec program, which taught women "gender-specific sciences" such as the chemistry behind blending tomato soup and milk. He also collected a number of post-World War II "social guidance films," including Are You Popular?, which emphasizes traditional gender roles, improved posture, and, ultimately, the importance of fitting in.

To maintain his quickly growing collection, Prelinger began charging licensing fees to TV networks and production companies for access to the films he owned. He sank licensing profits into more films, and soon, he moved his growing archive -- which had once been stashed under his bed -- to larger and larger office spaces.

To pay for his manic collecting, Prelinger compiled Footage 89, the first-ever guidebook to archival film footage sources in North America. It took two years and 10,000 phone calls to assemble the hundreds of thousands of tidbits of information into a 900-page book. (Several years previously, he had put together a similar book called Monitor America, listing radio frequencies by city and state for the entire country in another daunting, inch-and-a-half-thick volume.)

His film collection grew at an almost exponential rate. Material was relatively easy to come by, and at times he couldn't save the films fast enough. Many libraries or universities were all too glad to turn over their antiquated stashes of films for free. He also bought whole archives from other collectors. And sometimes, he pulled up to a bankrupt production company in a huge truck and loaded up the back with as much film as he could before the rest was dumped in the trash.

Some academics consider Prelinger a hero for having the foresight to rescue documentation of America's past before it decomposed. "What [Prelinger] is doing is so important," says Barbara Abrash, co-director of New York University's Center for Media and Culture. "The collection is invaluable, particularly because he has a particular connoisseurship. In those days [when he first started] those materials were underestimated; they were thought to be trivial. He has been working with all of us to highlight why this is important cultural information."

"Rick has performed a valuable service to our nation and to future generations by assembling this collection," adds Patrick Loughney, an archivist for the Moving Picture Collection at the Library of Congress.

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