Prelinger Archives Show How San Francisco Has Always Struggled with Change

Megan Shaw Prelinger is proud that her private library — tucked into a former warehouse at 301 Eighth St. (at Folsom) and open to the public on Wednesdays — is a global destination for researchers, artists, and authors. But she takes particular satisfaction in field-trip visits from nearby high schools.

“They freak,” Prelinger says. “They'll come in here and they'll say, 'I've never been allowed to handle an old book before.'”

The Prelinger Library collection includes 40,000 publications: pamphlets, programs, magazines, and maps. When they were made they were timely, relevant to a narrow audience, and meant to be eventually thrown away — not shelved in a library. They vividly document the look, feel, and popular imagination of times past.

“People raised in a digital environment have an enhanced sensitivity to the irreproducible tactile sensation of enjoying a book,” Shaw Prelinger says. “There's a sense of breaking through a barrier between their own digital-media everyday life, and the physical world.”

San Francisco adults also inform their view of the world by gazing into a contrived universe. I'm not talking about thirty-somethings addicted to video games. I'm referring to a San Francisco civic culture driven by nostalgia, and a constant pining to preserve or recapture a past that never was, and certainly can never be again.

A decade ago, this world view found expression in a backlash against development driven by a surge in tech-company investment. Oldsters cherished the idea that they were part of antique San Francisco, as contrived by columnist Herb Caen. Youngsters came to the city versed in tales of a 1967 Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park. Both groups were appalled to see live-work condominiums sprout up. Some took solace in the idea of freezing San Francisco and returning it to a halcyon time.

Now, quietly and incrementally, San Francisco's economy and development environment are moving toward a reprise of 1999's dot-com boom. Tech companies like Twitter are hiring in droves, and the corresponding influx of white-collar workers is driving up rents, said Tim Colen, executive director of the Housing Action Coalition, a smart-growth nonprofit. Recent approval of tens of thousands of units of housing and commercial development at projects such as ParkMerced, Treasure Island, Hunters Point, and Rincon Hill mean that locals will see cranes and construction workers, a sight that in years past has inspired a panic that development might change San Francisco irreparably.

Time spent in the Prelinger Library's stacks suggests that San Francisco is constantly changing. In fact, the most interesting aspects of bygone eras can be found in how previous generations adapted to change.

The collection is based on the principle that literature found in ordinary libraries — such as novels or history books — doesn't always present a detailed, precise, or even accurate measure of what the world used to be like.

“Magazines, pamphlets, brochures, and the like contain micro-narratives, little stories that don't always make it into books,” Shaw Prelinger says.

She opens a volume and turns to the January 1940 issue of National Safety News.

In it she finds an early telephone advertisement showing a white woman with a blissful smile beneath text describing an America “united by telephone.”

During the 1930s and '40s, when that earlier technological revolution was transforming society, telephone companies sought to soften the shock of the new by depicting the device as familiar and comfortable: Advertisers created the idea of the telephone as a caring mother eager to bring our national family closer together.

“This is social change through technology. It's gender history,” Shaw Prelinger says. “It shows us a picture we don't see anymore, of what life used to look like.”

After spending a couple of hours in the stacks in late August with Shaw Prelinger, I paid a follow-up visit in mid-September with my daughter, Olivia, to see the map collection being amassed by Megan's husband, Rick Prelinger. Olivia's third-grade class has been learning about maps, and I thought she might like to see some grand San Francisco specimens.

Rick Prelinger enjoyed ephemeral fame when the Library of Congress acquired his Prelinger Archive of old educational films in 2002. He has also collected a trove of old military aviation maps, U.S. Geological Survey topographical maps, and commercial maps depicting places such as San Francisco. For an adult raised on classroom globes and gas-station maps, the Prelinger collection provides a paradigm-busting shock akin to the one it gives teenagers unused to tangible media.

Rick Prelinger shows me one U.S. military aviation map about the size of a card table. In the bottom right corner is San Francisco. The Pacific coast stretches up the right side through Washington and Canada. Across the top we see the southern coast of Alaska up to the 53-mile-wide Bering Strait. This strip of land continues along the left side of the map as Russia's east coast, then as Sakhalin Island, and then Japan. It had not occurred to me that it's (theoretically) possible to walk to Japan with only around 200 miles of boat rides. We really are connected with the rest of the world.

We see a map made around the time of the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. Unlike today's satellite-view style maps, it depicts the city from above and behind the Ferry building, with Market Street and its tributaries fanning away from what used to be San Francisco's major transportation hub. Free parking, now seen as a historic birthright, used to be an irrelevancy for many San Franciscans.

Rick Prelinger shows us U.S. Geological Survey maps of San Francisco from the '50s, '60s, and '70s. The successive maps depict changes — Seals Stadium disappeared, as did an airfield at Crissy Field. But compared with the rest of the state, we're an island of stasis. San Franciscans refused to accommodate population growth, and forcing Bay Area newcomers to seek homes elsewhere. Successive maps of the San Jose area show hundreds of square miles of farmland transformed into housing tracts.

Urban planners have long known that San Francisco's resistance to change has driven development to outlying communities. These USGS maps prove it.

For someone keen on experiencing a more nuanced view of the past, the Prelinger Library is a treasure trove.

The kids on field trips, for instance: “They come in here, pull books off the shelves, and read to each other,” Shaw Prelinger says. “One time one got out a guitar and they made up and sang a song about the library.”

Perhaps they could be a model for the rest of us. In the 1939 city guidebook San Francisco: West Coast Metropolis, author William Saroyan credited San Francisco with a childlike willingness to give anything a try: This is “the city which does everything, and is always forgiven,” he wrote.

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