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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
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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 (www.prelinger.net).

"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.

About The Author

Bernice Yeung

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