Visit to the Prelinger Library: Ethnographic Reflections

On Thursday, September 17, 2015 I journeyed to the Prelinger Library for the inaugural ‘Place Talks: Visual Lectures about Location.’ Accompanied by my friends—a geography and maps librarian and a digital humanities technologist—I wanted to support my friend, Charlie Macquarie, for his talk and also to explore the famous Prelinger Library. Charlie is an archivist, librarian at Bancroft Library, artist, and writer from Northern Nevada. He leads up the “The Library of Approximate Location”—a project to “explore landscape, place, and the way we use information to define our relationships to the resources that enable modern life.” The Prelinger Library is located in the transforming South-of-market neighborhood in San Francisco. An independent research library, the Prelinger Library was born out of the collection of a pair of curious collectors, Megan and Rick Prelinger. The library consists of 19th and 20th century historical ephemera, periodicals, and material mostly from the United States. The library is organized in such a way to inspire accidental discoveries and connections and encourages ‘use’ rather than passive consumption. Instead of a topical mode of organization, the books are organized geospatially—starting with material on San Francisco spiraling out to topics on outer space.

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Although I only had about 30 minutes to peruse the collection before the start of the talk, I stumbled on books never before seen in an institutional library nor neatly placed next to each other—“Beauty tips from your uncle,” Marxist conference proceedings from the Bay Area, and books about books, libraries, book burning, and digital libraries. I plan to return to the Prelinger Library for an extended period of time, but my short experience in the stacks sparked many questions regarding the curatorial practices of libraries. How do classification systems shape and constrain the experience of people who go to libraries to become visitors rather than users? Furthermore, how have libraries evolved to become a storehouse of knowledge and silent consumption rather than an active space of accidental discoveries, community, and communication?

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Charlie’s talk, “Mountain, Desert, Ocean—or Institutes of Place and Other Approximate Locations” dwells exactly upon this last question. Charlie traces the story of the library of the Foresta Institute of Ocean and Mountain Studies from Washoe Pines Ranch Nevada to its current home in the Prelinger Library. Rather than a passive, standard history of materials transferred, Charlie narrates the story through his own family history from the Sierra Nevada to the Bay Area.

Charlie poses the following questions in his talk: “What does it mean to identify with a place? Who gets to know the identity of belonging, and what signifies responsible stewardship? Can it be a no trespassing sign, a walking meditation, or a library? Can it be cooking for an ecology camp or cleaning the teeth of Park Rangers? Can it be a stamp in a book?” Rather than linear narrations, Charlie anchors his process of recollection and exploration in the material collections of the Prelinger Collection. With a momentary pause on a book about bears, hiking trails, or mountains, Charlie would move between the contents of the book and his and his parent’s memories about the Sierra Nevada.

His endearing, honest, and often humorous stories drew us into an exploration of the archival collections of the Prelinger and the sporadic remnants of memory-recall. The movement between past and present, material and immaterial felt eerily natural and fitting from my bootstrapped seat perched high above the rest of the audience. (The room was so packed that we ran out of seats. People sat on the floor and we pulled in a rolling staircase placed in the stacks aisles. I sat ten feet above everyone’s heads, surrounded by two rows of books about Bay area feminism and book burning.)


I wondered if it would be possible to replicate the experience of hearing Charlie’s talk in print or through video. But it would be difficult to convey the following elements: the audience—a room packed full of friends and his lovely parents; the space—the radically adventurous experiment of the Prelinger Library; and the mood and temperature—comfortably warm due to laughter and the sheer amount of people. It’s been several months after this talk, but I am still struck by Charlie’s experimental, honest, and non-linear narrative style. Not only was it effective and compelling, but it also highlighted the inherent messiness of history and memory. Rather than flattening narratives into ‘sensible’, ‘rational’ arguments, dwelling upon the associative, spontaneous nature of memories brings out the human emotions of remembrance—that is, the relationship, love, and delicate nostalgia to people and places.

Charlie Macquarie, @advnturelibrary

A Library of Approximate Locations and Location Approximations through the Arid States

The Prelinger Library

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