Settling on a title for Megan Shaw Prelinger was tough. “Renegade librarian,” “cultural historian,” “collector of the uncommon,” and “arrangement schema superstar” were but a few of the ideas that hopped in and out of my brain while we spoke inside her namesake library, San Francisco’s Prelinger Library. Specializing in bygone artifacts and ephemera and organized by a system Megan devised herself, the library is an extraordinary place.
But, when I asked Megan what she’d consider the most appropriate title for herself, “library builder,” was her humble and simple suggestion. “It can kind of encompass all of that,” she says. “Collection building, community building, and transforming the process of research into something that’s like an institution but isn’t.”
Megan and her husband Rick opened the library in 2004, on the second floor of an old, block-long city building that also houses a carpet store, a dance conservatory, a tai chi studio, and a decor consignment shop. The Prelinger Library contains what Megan calls “found and forgotten literature” or “historical ephemera” — maps, pamphlets, trade journals, government documents, ‘zines, and such. Along with Megan and Rick’s own personal collections, the library holds discards from public and academic libraries that were aggressively weeding in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The couple (very selectively) chose these materials to collect, preserve, and share.
“I started out pursuing a career as an indie historian, trying to determine what it would mean to write or understand history based on resources that were different from what was in mainstream libraries,” she says. “I started with the idea of doing new historical research based on found and forgotten materials.”
“When I graduated, I didn’t really want to go back to school,” says Megan. “I wanted to go on field trips and road trips around the U.S. — which I did, and I started finding and collecting things in used bookstores and the backs of gas stations.”
It’s not your grandmother’s library, though it may contain some of her old reading material. Situated in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood, not too far from ModCloth’s headquarters, the Prelinger Library feels more like a collaborative DIY workspace or community workshop. Photographing, interacting with, and utilizing the materials is encouraged, as most content is in the public domain. The library, open to the public on Wednesdays, hosts regular visits by artists, academics, and all kinds of curious minds.
Wednesdays are both Megan’s favorite day of the week and favorite part of the job. “Meeting the community that comes to use the library, that’s the highlight!,” she says. “I feel like the process of community exchange and resource sharing is something you do from the heart. It’s both a side effect of my main work as a historian, but it’s also at the center of what’s meaningful to me about the kind of work that we do.”
It’s easy to go into sensory overload in the Prelinger Library. There’s that warm, musky old book smell, and the natural beauty in the juxtaposition of colorful hardbound covers. Three long shelves are crowded with books, journals, and stacks of grey boxes — where more ephemeral artifacts are stored, ripe for rediscovery. Your eyes start to wander, and your toes and mind are quick to follow. Next thing you know, you’ve lost track of time.
Prompting that sort of spontaneous browsing behavior, and the urge to wander, were all Megan’s intention. So, instead of following traditional library cataloging rules, she created her own. Subjects are arranged as if they’re part of a continuous string of interests of ideas, starting with geographical landscapes before meandering into topics such as agriculture, industry, arts, society, philosophy, and then ending in outer space.
“I just asked the question, ‘What would an alternative research library look like? And, what would research look like if it was as much fun as going out on a field trip?’ That impulse, the explorer impulse, led to a very basic idea to arrange the subjects as if they were in a landscape, as if you were walking through them, climbing through them, or exploring through them.”
Megan and Rick always intended the library to be a public resource. “Even before I met Rick, when I would publish essays in the ’90s in a ‘zine, I made window installations of my research evidence, because I thought, ‘Nevermind what I saw in this evidence, I’m just as curious of what other people would make of it.’ But even doing displays to go with the essays wasn’t totally satisfying, because what I really wanted to do was share my research materials with other people, and see what other people would come up with.”
Megan sees the library not so much as her job, but more of a “project of the heart.” “I work as a writer, researcher, and historian,” she said, “and the library is an extension of all those activities. It’s a project that grew out of having a lot of different kinds of interests and having just a desire to put resources together and make a community workshop out of them.”
The Prelinger Library is open to the public on Wednesdays. For those who cannot visit its physical locale, much of the collection has been digitized and is available online. Ready for a field trip?