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.

There are only telltale hints of the Prelingers' collecting habits in their quiet Richmond District apartment: a map of the Bay Area's "Geology and Active Faults" slung behind the kitchen door, boxes stacked nearly to the ceiling in a dark rear hallway, a few volumes of bound periodicals arranged on a coffee table, a pile of film cans near the door. Mostly, though, the front of the apartment is simple and neat, lorded over by Scanner the dog, and two cats.

But on weekdays the doorbell can ring frequently; it's UPS or Federal Express with some boxes of books and magazines from a library that no longer has room for them.

"Last summer, I acquired a huge collection of periodicals from the Kansas City Public Library," Prelinger explains, getting up to scrutinize a nearby bookshelf and find an example of his bounty. He produces Uranium Magazine. "It's like a zine, but for uranium prospectors!" he says excitedly. He sets down the magazine and returns with another: Ken Magazinefrom 1937.

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 
Pedestrian.
Prelinger started his collection of industrial and educational films after seeing When You Are a Pedestrian.

"A mass-market, anti-fascist magazine," Prelinger says. "Hemingway's writing is in here. There's an article on prisons in the 1930s and how difficult it is to break out of them."

He chuckles a little to himself as he continues flipping. But when he sets the magazine aside, he appears a bit indignant.

"I have issues with libraries getting rid of stuff like that," he says. "Libraries have all these self-help books and videotapes now, but a lot of the historical material is gone. It makes it a lot harder for residents of a city to have some access. It's happening right here in San Francisco. I do have a problem with that.

"Because who's going to be the Rick Prelinger 30 years from now?" he demands. "Who's going to be the geeky kid at the library, sitting and looking at old redevelopment pictures, interested in what the city used to be like? Some kid is going to be interested in all this stuff, and the material is not going to be there."

It is an unforgivable notion, and a tension enters his voice. He has always known it, but it's still a difficult admission. Things seem to disappear faster than they can be preserved, not everyone will be able to love history as he does, and try as he might, Rick Prelinger simply can't save it all, not by a long shot.

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