Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

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

Page 3 of 5

"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.

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"