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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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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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