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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.

Wednesday, Oct 30 2002
The first film Rick Prelinger bought for his world-famous collection of industrial and educational movies was When You Are a Pedestrian, a 1940s production warning of the myriad dangers that lurk in crossing the street. It opens with an unidentified "ex-pedestrian" telling the audience he'd been killed by a driver named Joe Smith.

"It hurt pretty bad at first," the narrator says nonchalantly as a bloody corpse flashes on the screen. A montage of accident scenes follows, juxtaposed with images of victims -- none of whom survives.

"Here is death," the narrator explains. "Raw and ugly death!"

The educational movie-cum-horror flick continues with staged sequences of a mother and daughter crossing the street hand in hand, followed by scenes of puppets viciously run over by toy cars because of flawed street-crossing techniques.

But it was not the film's campy subject matter that appealed to Prelinger. A self-described geek, late bloomer, and ex-punk rocker, the Richmond District resident was drawn, simply, to the images of Oakland. The film's latter scenes cut between shots of downtown, Broadway Avenue, and International Boulevard, moving through familiar streets and landmarks that Prelinger had known as an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley in the 1970s. He marveled at how the same places that he had seen through a bus window looked so similar and different simultaneously.

From that moment in 1982, Prelinger became obsessed with collecting the industrial and educational movies that he later dubbed "ephemeral films." To Prelinger, these movies -- rotting in basements or discarded as junk -- represented precious documentation of the past; they were his way of examining the landscape of an America that no longer existed.

Twenty years and 13 maxed-out credit cards later, Prelinger had amassed 48,000 movies in the Prelinger Archives, the largest collection of American ephemeral film in the world. Prelinger sold the archive to the Library of Congress in August for $500,000. And the film archive isn't just a collection; it is a testament to Prelinger's devotion to open access to historical materials.

In that regard, Prelinger recently made 1,500 films from his collection available for free on the Internet Archive, a digital library of the Web ( Users simply download the films without paying a penny or signing a licensing agreement. "You do NOT need permission to download or reuse Prelinger films if you have downloaded them from the Internet Archive," Prelinger's Web site says. "We warmly encourage you to download, view, and use these films in any manner that you wish ...."

"I couldn't believe the quality of the films available on the Internet," says Vicki Bennett, a British artist who makes collage films set to sampled sound. "I wrote to Rick and I said, 'Thanks, you saved my life.' I had been feeling really stuck because of the lack of generosity from other archivists. Since then, I've gotten work commissioned by the government."

That his collection of films became an international resource is in some ways an accident; Prelinger never set out to build a film archive. Though he developed a particular connoisseurship over time, his archive is really just a manifestation of his compulsion to hoard in the name of history, and that impulse has not dissipated with the sale of the film collection.

Almost autonomically, he continues to amass great quantities of material -- obscure and popular magazines, Bureau of Land Management reports and other government documents, newspapers, atlases -- certain of their eventual historical value. The publications he collects are often already archived by other institutions; in some ways, the piles of paper he has stashed in storage are obsessive redundancies.

But Prelinger is not just gathering physical pieces of the printed past. He has plans to create a library that will do for his paper archives what he has already done with ephemeral film. Though he is still trying to find space to accommodate the approximately 40,000 items he has collected, Prelinger hopes that the library will enable artists, researchers, and people who are simply curious to re-examine and revere the unedited bits of cultural history he has salvaged.

"I'm taking historical material and showing people primary resources that were not reworked with voice-overs like on the History Channel," he says, his gentle voice grainy, like sound from an old 16mm film. "I was giving people a chance to look at footage of people from way back when. I call it 'historical intervention.' Injecting historical content into the present changes the way we experience ourselves and how we plan our futures.

"I'm fascinated with the look of the past. I have an urgent need to form images of what a place looked like in the '40s or '50s. What did it smell like? What were people wearing? What [was] people's body language? Was it noisy or quiet? Was the air smoky?"

Rick Prelinger is a self-taught historical visionary; at age 49, he remains two units shy of a bachelor's degree in a self-created major called "culture and ideology." A graying blond with a slight potbelly, Prelinger still listens to punk rock and considers himself a devotee of the counterculture, despite an obvious bent toward pedantry. He is widely described as open and generous, particularly with his film archive. At the same time, he is suspicious enough of the Establishment to be in constant pursuit of what he terms "unmediated information," reading at least three newspapers a day, speed-skimming through books, and listening to police scanners as a hobby. And though he wears a down-to-earth uniform of black T-shirts and jeans, Prelinger is clearly a savvy entrepreneur and self-promoter -- and an effective one, in part because he makes it seem as if he's not trying to promote anything.

But a full understanding of the odd and contradictory world of Rick Prelinger -- in which then and now often collide, or at least mix heavily -- requires, of course, a glimpse at his own past.

The oldest of four children, Prelinger is the son of a Yale University psychology professor and a well-educated housewife. He grew up in New Haven, Conn., with privilege, both financial and emotional: His parents sent him to the finest private schools and never failed to support and encourage young Ricky's eccentric hobbies.

Many of his childhood interests were related to gaining access to, in his verbiage, "forbidden knowledge." At age 8 or so, Prelinger became a television enthusiast -- but not because he liked the shows. He says he would wake up before dawn to watch TV station test patterns, copiously jotting down in a notebook any technical information displayed on the screen.

He discovered shortwave radio when he was 9 and became fascinated with the audio information that he could clandestinely intercept. His intense interest in shortwave radio and radio scanning continued into his mid-20s. There was no purpose, really, for listening in on the internal conversations of police, private businesses, and undercover agencies; it just pleased him to have access to a secret world.

During his adolescence, he began to develop an interest in history, reading voraciously and making frequent trips to the local library to look at old photographs of New Haven and compare them to more recent pictures. "My parents definitely tried hard to nurture me as a brainy kid," Prelinger says. "No one was trying to talk me out of my geeky interests."

He went to high school at the academically rigorous Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., where he developed a taste for punk rock and other things countercultural, and, after graduation, moved to California and UC Berkeley. He dropped out after a little more than a year, lived in various East Coast cities working as a typesetter, and soon returned to San Francisco, taking classes at Cal part time. He found an apartment on Guy Place, a small SOMA alley that happened to be near a film-processing business. By then, his interest in cultural discards had crystallized, and he began wading around in the dumpsters after hours, looking for "trash photographs."

In 1980, he moved to New York, hoping to become a filmmaker, but he mostly helped other filmmakers do footage research. And once he saw When You Are a Pedestrian, filmmaking fell by the wayside, and he began collecting movies as a way to live out his negotiation of past and present. But as he continued to collect, he discovered a world of industrial and educational films that could be wonderfully kitschy and all too telling of an idealized, middle-class, white American life from a bygone era.

There were films like The Home Economics Story, made in the 1950s to promote Iowa State College's home ec program, which taught women "gender-specific sciences" such as the chemistry behind blending tomato soup and milk. He also collected a number of post-World War II "social guidance films," including Are You Popular?, which emphasizes traditional gender roles, improved posture, and, ultimately, the importance of fitting in.

To maintain his quickly growing collection, Prelinger began charging licensing fees to TV networks and production companies for access to the films he owned. He sank licensing profits into more films, and soon, he moved his growing archive -- which had once been stashed under his bed -- to larger and larger office spaces.

To pay for his manic collecting, Prelinger compiled Footage 89, the first-ever guidebook to archival film footage sources in North America. It took two years and 10,000 phone calls to assemble the hundreds of thousands of tidbits of information into a 900-page book. (Several years previously, he had put together a similar book called Monitor America, listing radio frequencies by city and state for the entire country in another daunting, inch-and-a-half-thick volume.)

His film collection grew at an almost exponential rate. Material was relatively easy to come by, and at times he couldn't save the films fast enough. Many libraries or universities were all too glad to turn over their antiquated stashes of films for free. He also bought whole archives from other collectors. And sometimes, he pulled up to a bankrupt production company in a huge truck and loaded up the back with as much film as he could before the rest was dumped in the trash.

Some academics consider Prelinger a hero for having the foresight to rescue documentation of America's past before it decomposed. "What [Prelinger] is doing is so important," says Barbara Abrash, co-director of New York University's Center for Media and Culture. "The collection is invaluable, particularly because he has a particular connoisseurship. In those days [when he first started] those materials were underestimated; they were thought to be trivial. He has been working with all of us to highlight why this is important cultural information."

"Rick has performed a valuable service to our nation and to future generations by assembling this collection," adds Patrick Loughney, an archivist for the Moving Picture Collection at the Library of Congress.

Prelinger may have accumulated the largest collection of ephemeral films in the United States, but his is by no means the only one. What separates him from the film-collecting fray has been his willingness to share his archive with most anyone who asks. Independent filmmakers, Smithsonian scholars, and university professors have all requested free footage from Prelinger, and he has obliged. Given his reputation, even filmmakers who can afford to pay for the footage have tried to score free material from Prelinger. "Corporate, for-profit types -- like a documentary filmmaker for CNN -- will call and harass us and try to pose as an independent, broke filmmaker trying to help children," says Greg Allen, a former Prelinger Archives employee. "They think you're so stupid. Rick has plenty of people trying to take advantage of him."

Even so, Prelinger seems to be constantly focused on new ways to get his material to the public, without charge. In the mid-'90s, when CD-ROM was a new format, he was already producing the first segments of Our Secret Century, a 12-volume compilation of archival films complete with a video introduction, bibliography, suggested reading, and program notes. A few years later, he gave access to several of his films to a friend who was packaging ephemeral films into DVDs. He travels across the country curating screenings at venues such as UC Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive and New York's American Museum of the Moving Image. Most recently, he put 1,500 free, downloadable, public domain movies on the Internet Archive.

"Rick is at the forefront on access issues," says Rob Stone, associate curator for collections at UCLA's Film and Television Archive. "Certainly all archives are looking at what he's doing, seeing where he's headed, and then following him."

Stephen Parr, who runs a smaller archive on Capp Street in the Mission District, has debated the issue with Prelinger for years. Parr says Prelinger operates from a position of privilege that other archivists just can't match. "The theory [behind providing free access] is good," says Parr. "We've had a lot of give-and-take on this issue because it works for him, but will it work for other people? It works for him because he has a major collection, and he can afford to put up 1 percent of his collection for free."

Prelinger remains steadfast in his belief that cultural artifacts like his film collection should be available for free so the public can create its own interpretations of history. And his resolve to save and publicize these films undoubtedly has much to do with a sincere desire to share pieces of history that America didn't know it wanted.

But the care, time, and money he has spent saving, preserving, archiving, and providing access to these films also has had much to do with a possibility that he would never want to face: These films might have disappeared. To Prelinger, the thought is heartbreaking. The very basis of his view of the world depends on visual, tangible evidence of the past -- so it can be compared to today, and used to guess at the future -- and the evidence he's gathered does not stop at film.

Prelinger enters the dark mouth of a Marin storage space on a blazing fall morning and switches on the light; a narrow hallway stretches out before him, its cool and dim conditions ideal for the storage of archival material. Most of his expansive film collection has been transported to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., but he keeps a few boxes of quality film-to-tape transfers in storage, so he can continue to license footage to production companies.

Among other reasons, he's come to the storage space -- where he rents five units, and the manager knows him by name -- to pull out tapes that he plans to use for the archival-footage feature film he hopes to finish by the end of 2003. The film project, too, relates to his frustration with how historical material remains undervalued. "Archival documentaries are heavy on the voice-over," he says. "That's one of their greatest limits -- you don't see [the footage] for very long. Archival footage was getting screwed. I thought that what would save archival footage is if we blew open the usage of archival footage and began using it fictionally."

The dozens of boxes of film-to-tape transfers in the storage spaces take up only a small portion of one 10-by-10-by-10 unit. The rest of that space -- as well as the other four -- is packed to the gills with books and bound magazines and government documents and boxes of yet-to-be-identified matter that Prelinger and his wife, Megan, hope to organize into a community library.

To see the sheer volume of material in his possession is to understand that Prelinger's impressive collection of film is only one manifestation of his impulse to preserve in the name of history. "His pace is incredible," says Tim Ries, a former employee at the Prelinger Archives. "It's a fact that Rick is continually in collecting mode. It makes you realize how great his passion must be."

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.

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."

Prelinger felt he needed to make a statement. He needed to tell people that they should respect history, that it offers clues about the present and the future. But he was too much of an anarchist to do it in an obvious way. For years, the need gnawed at him. Then he took a long, hot drive through northern New Mexico in 1997, and it came to him: "I thought, 'Oh, I've got to do a coin. I just gotta make a coin.' It was a way of making a statement about how to appreciate the space around us historically. But I also wanted it to be enigmatic."

By 2000, Prelinger and his wife -- who met while co-writing an article on freeways and landscape histories for a zine -- had begun working together to design and mint 10,000 "landscape coins." On one side of the coin is an image of a road, accompanied by the words, "Landscape is our memory; a map of hidden histories." On the other side is a picture of a nondescript rural setting of railroad tracks, a grain silo, and a brick building, with text that reads, "Value me as you please."

Every year for the next decade, the Prelingers plan to "drop" as many of the 10,000 coins as they can in locations across the country to prompt people to ponder the histories embedded in landscapes. So far, they have liberated 900 coins, and four people have contacted them through their Web site (

"We drop coins where people have interesting interactions with the environment," Prelinger says. "Where conflicts have taken place, where nature and culture meet or collide, or exist harmoniously. Some scenes of disaster and crimes; some scenes of good things, places where people are workers, modifying or changing their environment; some post-industrial or post-militarized places."

They have left coins in Seattle; Kyoto, Japan; Santa Barbara; Vancouver; and cities in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. And of course the coins are dropped all over the Bay Area, often during weekend coining excursions.

On a warm October Sunday, Prelinger, Megan, and their dog Scanner get into the family car, along with two water bottles, a portable Global Positioning System device, a black notebook, a radio scanner, and a bag of the landscape coins. Prelinger steers his electric-gas hybrid through the mist on Highway 35 toward the Peninsula. He and his wife make a quick stop to coin the Tanforan Shopping Center, the spot of both a former racetrack and the Japanese Assembly Center, where Japanese-Americans were processed before they were sent to internment camps during World War II.

They don't pause very long to admire their handiwork, quickly jumping back into the car and driving south on El Camino Real toward the San Mateo Bridge. The next stop is the Hayward Regional Shoreline. Prelinger rests the GPS on the dashboard, purely for the pleasure of watching the electronic landscape on the machine shift as the car continues to shuttle forward.

Near the entrance of the shoreline, Prelinger parks in a dirt lot. Scanner is put on a leash, and Prelinger and Megan head toward the beach, a 15-minute walk down a simple dirt path with saltwater marsh on one side and an overgrowth of yellowing weeds and grasses on the other. As a plane flies low overhead, Prelinger takes out his radio scanner and listens for cockpit-airport tower conversation, but gets mostly static.

As they approach the beach, the ground begins to glimmer in rainbow hues. The Prelingers explain: The shining, multicolored beach was created when incinerated garbage that had been dumped in the bay in the early 1900s was dredged and used for shoreline landfill. Since most of the garbage had decomposed, all that was left was worn chips of china, ceramic, and glass from another era.

Today, the beach is covered in these timeworn shards, some pieces of aging glass turning beautiful shades of lavender. "This is a wonderful site for a landscape coin," Prelinger comments. Megan agrees, and she begins looking for a jar that has remained intact so she can place a coin inside.

They hunt through the beach, delighting in glass pieces that were twisted and mutilated by the incinerator. They admire the gorgeous colored glass and intricately patterned ceramic -- at one time dishes, teacups, soda bottles, and mayonnaise jars -- lying at their feet amongst rocks and sand. They pick up segments of old bottles and jars, trying to ascertain their provenance.

One jar bottom reads: "Patented 1915, Oklahoma." Another scrap of glass has only a few letters intact: "... nge ... cr." "Orange Crush!" Prelinger exclaims, deciphering the letters.

Megan finally spies a small glass jar near the water, tinted green with moss. She places a coin inside, leaving the jar near where it was found.

Though their mission has been accomplished, the two spend another hour sifting through the beach, looking for interesting shapes and intact lettering, as if trying to read a history through these disjointed remnants of the past.

"This is a wonderful little museum, isn't it?" Prelinger says, surveying a shoreline that would, no doubt, horrify many an environmentalist. "It's like an Easter egg hunt from when you were a kid, when an ordinary landscape is filled with interesting colors and objects. This is the same thing. It's really uncanny. I know I say 'uncanny' a lot. But it is."

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 Magazine from 1937.

"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.

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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