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.

The more recent, paper ephemera collections in these units are not as rare as the films he once collected, but, to Prelinger, that's beside the point. He saves them because, in his mind, America's cultural heritage is at stake. And he believes that if he doesn't save and consciously provide access to them, a majority of the public may never see the real thing. "A lot of this you could find in a good library -- if they had better access," he acknowledges. "But the university libraries are often not open to the public, or you have to go all the way to the Library of Congress to look at them. There needs to be a friendly, community-oriented place that encourages people to come look at it.

"There are archivists who could do amazing things, who are powerless. The reason I can take initiative with access, which is my real contribution, is that I don't have to get permission from anyone to do things. I don't report to a board; I'm not a civil servant or a member of a university who has to report to a bureaucrat."

Today, Prelinger has to wade through the disorganized clutter of his would-be library to extract 15 videotapes from storage space 20441; the tapes are to be licensed to various clients for a punk rock video and a TV documentary. He pulls out a ring clanging with a half-dozen keys, and, after many failed keyings, the lock yields, and Prelinger rolls up the heavy, green metal door, revealing a cavernous space packed with precariously stacked brown boxes of all sizes and dimensions. It is impossible to see beyond the first few teetering configurations of boxes, film projectors, and antique books. Prelinger rifles through boxes stationed in the front, digging through more than a dozen containers.

Rick Prelinger can't fight the impulse to hoard in the 
name of history.
Paolo Vescia
Rick Prelinger can't fight the impulse to hoard in the name of history.
Prelinger started his collection of industrial and 
educational films after seeing When You Are a 
Prelinger started his collection of industrial and educational films after seeing When You Are a Pedestrian.

After 20 minutes of scrounging, Prelinger crosses the last tape off the list and padlocks the unit, placing the tapes he pulled from storage in his car. He then removes a few unopened boxes from his trunk -- the latest shipment of government documents that he and his wife have begun collecting. Mostly, the couple seeks out documents relating to land and geography, among them old reports and charts from the Bureau of Land Management. They also collect books and periodicals from libraries that no longer have room in their stacks; among the Prelingers' acquisitions are 90 boxes of the Official Gazette from the U.S. Patent Office from the years 1880 to 1966, each crate weighing 70 pounds. The couple is proud to have carted these books away before the Oakland Public Library -- which couldn't find an official document depository to take them -- threw them out earlier this year. Prelinger says he plans to digitize a portion of the material and put it up on the Internet for free.

"Originally I was collecting this stuff for research, but now I'm interested in opening a library," he says. "A library to get things, so people can appropriate things, for people to work or show work. A library where content is transformed, where you could go to make copies, take pictures, scan. But we need space. I've got 40,000 to 50,000 items."

Prelinger takes these unopened boxes of government documents to space 10049, which is also packed with teetering boxes. After unloading the new boxes haphazardly, he proudly points out boxes of old Fortune and Life magazines, a stack of periodical indexes, and a large brown book from 1911 that bears the title Volume 1 Human Engineering.

In the back rests a stack of nearly a century old San Francisco Chronicle newspapers, some of the most delicate materials Prelinger has in storage. "Those are from 1915, the year of the World's Fair," he says, hyperconscious of their sensitive nature. "There are color supplements, articles by Laura Ingalls Wilder's daughter. But each time you turn the page, you kill it. We need to figure out a way to scan and digitally correct them."

After closing up the unit, he moves to space 10002, just to show off an impressive portion of his collection. The most neatly organized of the spaces so far, the unit is filled with more than a dozen boxes lined up along the floor, stacked at least a dozen boxes high, running 15 feet deep. The entire space holds old periodicals, from Keith's Magazine, a building periodical from the 1920s, to Look magazines from the 1970s, to Radio Electronics Magazine.

If the periodicals and documents Prelinger collects are not unique, he still reveres them as disappearing pieces of a historical puzzle. "I know I look like some compulsive collector, but I don't see myself as a saver in the traditional way," he says without irony, locking up his unit. "I don't consider myself a fundamental pack rat."

Rick Prelinger's view of the world is often in conflict with the way the world operates. Media-makers produce dry, historical documentaries for a graying population watching the History Channel. Libraries that have run out of space in their stacks are replacing beautiful aging volumes with microfiche, and -- gasp! -- throwing out the originals.

"When things happen today, we think they're happening for the first time, that other generations didn't have to work through what we're working through now," Prelinger says. "I look at old material, and I realize there's a basic experience in our society, a history, and if we're not aware of it, it could be to our own peril."

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