On the Organization of the Prelinger Library

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by Megan Shaw Prelinger

The library is arranged in six rows, with the rows arranged in three sets of facing pairs to make three aisles. Each row holds ten shelf banks, and each shelf bank holds ten shelves.

The contents of the library cohere around four constant threads: landscape and geography; media and representation; historical consciousness; and political narratives from beyond the mainstream. Each of these four threads is represented in its own dedicated section in the library, but each is also represented to some extent on nearly every shelf.

The library is appropriation-friendly. It has been built to serve the raw material needs of creators of all kinds, including visual artists as well as researchers and writers. This means that the holdings are weighted toward image-richness, and toward materials that are within the public domain.

The library's subjects are iconoclastic. They represent the realms of thought that bounce around the insides of both our minds, and I designed their order in the way that best made sense to link those realms associatively in six rows of shelves. To make this linearization possible, the library's rows are each arranged with a "start" on one end and an "end" on the other. The flow of the subjects starts at the beginning of Row One, and where Row One ends it continues across the aisle at Row Two. Each row is therefore "read" left to right in the conceptual flow, all the way to the end of Row Six.

Across this flow from the beginning of Row One to the end of Row Six, books, documents, maps and periodicals are generally shelved by subject as would be expected. Our principal digression from subject-specific shelving is that location-specific materials are usually shelved as appropriate in the Regional section, no matter what their subject matter is. Only when the subject matter is one of dense concern does the subject matter take precedence in determining where the book will be shelved. For example, books on the history of apple-growing in Washington State are in the Pacific Northwest section, rather than in Agriculture, because the principle of our location-specific shelving strategy outweighs any interest we might have in being agricultural completists. On the other hand, books about the Hanford Nuclear Site in Washington State are shelved in Nuclear Threat first, because their relevance to historians of nuclear threat outweighs their admittedly very significant relevance to people researching the Pacific Northwest. If two copies are available in such a situation, a book will be shelved in both of the appropriate locations in the library.

Our shelving strategy also diverges from that of other libraries in our approach to materials integration. On our shelves, maps, government documents, books, periodicals, and ephemera are all shelved together within commonly-held subject headings. This promotes an integral approach to research and browsing, and opens wide the possibility of discovery. It is one way we have put into practice our goal of being a browsing-based library rather than a query-based library. In a query-based library, when you know you are looking for a map you go to the map section. In our library, you may be drawn toward a subject without knowing that a map of its related area would be relevant to your inquiry, until you arrive at the shelf and learn so for yourself.

The library's flow of subject matter starts with where we are, with the local. Its six rows proceed from bank to bank, section to section, and row to row, holding all the subjects one after the other in our line of associative links. The California collection opens Row One, and general reference works (one hundred and twenty-five years of the Official Gazette of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office) close Row Six. In between, the library's subjects move from the place-based, the concrete, and the tangible, in the first three rows, toward the etherized, the abstract, and the theoretical, in the last three rows. At its winding end, its non-fiction subjects step across the stones of math, science, and outer space, where they end. Our modest fiction collection picks up where nonfiction leaves off: with Science Fiction.

RowOne.jpgRow One, after allotting one whole bank to California, lays out the rest of the United States in a sort of a map. The second bank holds resources and literature relating to Pacific coast states other than California: Alaska at the top shelf, being furthest north; Hawai'i at the bottom shelf, being furthest south. In between is the Pacific Northwest, a very well-loved collection. The second bank holds the interior west; the third bank the Midwest; fourth bank the Atlantic coast excepting New York, and the fifth bank is devoted entirely to New York. This library is a very personal collection, and it naturally has "bumps" where subjects are particularly dear to our hearts. The Pacific Northwest and New York sections are two such bumps, as they represent our respective formative landscapes. Following the Regional section are North American travel and our microscopic world geography section; then geography (general) and cartography. Geographical Review is here with other geography journals, as is an entire shelf of books on the history of cartography.

To refine my earlier description of the contents, the library represents the subjects that occupy our minds only to the extent that those subjects have been allowed to consume the available acquisitional resources, and carefully chosen and curated to fit into the space available. The fact that the rest of the world is given only passing mention in our opening Regional section is not an indication of a lack of interest on our part. We are both well-traveled and resist provincialism in all its pernicious manifestations. But we are both guided by an acute sense of responsibility to understand, interpret, shape, and impact our own United States history. This imperative outweighs the very real affinity that we feel toward the rest of the world, the histories of which countries simply bear less directly on our shoulders. When we have more room, we will have more world history and geography.

Row One then continues with what's in and on the land (besides ourselves): natural history; environmental studies, the elements (earth, air, fire, and water), our social and cultural relationships to the land, and extractive resource industries. Our bird books are here, as is our run of Monthly Weather Review and our vast collection of USDA agricultural bulletins and our books on forestry, mining, and the oil industry. Row One winds up with a gem of our collection: the geology and earth resources collection, starring our US Geological Survey maps and monographs.

RowTwo.jpgRow Two starts with what people do with what we pull out of the earth: histories of manufacturing and industry. Mill and Factory rubs shoulders here with Iron Age and Factory Management. The next bank proceeds to how we move around the objects we've made with what we've pulled out of the earth: histories of transportation infrastructure. Highways, cars, railroads, airlines, and even Bus Transportation magazine have their spaces here. (How we move ourselves around is inextricably linked, here, to our movement of built objects.) Following transportation infrastructure are other forms of infrastructure: how we channel the flows of electricity, water, and waste around us. Then after Waste and Water Works and The Sanitary City, the collection focuses long and hard on the landscapes that are the knotted terminals of all such infrastructures: cities. There are four banks of books and periodicals relating to city planning and urban studies, starring American City magazine among many others. After urban studies, we consider other kinds of built landscapes: those that are components of cities and are yet not urban, and those that lie between cities and suburbs. Books and historic periodicals on gardens, playgrounds, parks, recreational spaces, and cemeteries are here.

RowThree.jpgRow Three picks up right where Row Two leads: to the suburbs. Rick is the author of a significant piece of scholarship on the history of suburbs, and this is a great special collection of books and resources on suburban history and culture. After suburbs, the next bank holds domestic environments: Good Housekeeping, books on homemaking and home repair are all here. Then two banks of books and journals on homebuilding, interiors, home finance, and housing activism. Home Ownership: Is It Sound? is on the shelf here, as is our run of Small Homes magazine. Real Estate continues on the next bank, then architecture, graphic design, and the fine arts.

Architecture constitutes a "bridge" in the middle of Row Three between the built environment and the designed, looked-at, and consumed environment of media and representation. Architecture is anchored by our collection of Architectural Forum; graphic design has Inland Printer and one issue of Journal of Aesthetics and Protest. The fine arts section focuses on photography, graphic arts, and politically conscious artwork. Next I've put our advertising section, which is focused on the visual display of marketed information and includes a large collection of older books and periodicals such as Tide, Advertising and Selling, and Modern Packaging. Display World is here at the last stop before television, as the journal of the art of store-window design.

RowFour.jpgRow Four opens as the Media Row and ends with culture and language. It starts off with Rick's fantastic collection of materials on the history, culture, and economics of television. Following television are the other related moving image and broadcast media: The Prelinger Archives' reference collection of works relating to non-feature films is here, as are dog-eared favorites such as Incredibly Strange Films. The television and film sections together fill almost half the entire row; their scope is quite deep. Following film are sections relating to other forms of telecommunication: FCC Record, the gripping narrative of every governmental decision made about broadcast regulation in the past seventy years; then sections on telephones and telegraphy, including our run of Broadcasting and Bell Telephone Magazine. The non-broadcast media network of print journalism follows, and then the computing section.

It may seem associatively free to some visitors, but music follows the computing section. The fact that computers are the future of music distribution certainly contributed to this placement. But more importantly computers connect individuals to one another, and form the most common denomination of access to cultural information. The computer section was therefore the best choice to link the media and networks sections with the other cultural studies sections, which begin with music.

After music comes food, a surprisingly interesting section that features our set of congressional hearings about the problems posed by chain convenience stores, as well as a run of Progressive Grocer. From food, a general section on American cultural history contains some of the library's best lunchtime reading picks. This section started out as a catch-all zone for books that didn't fit exactly anywhere else . From that humble beginning it has evolved into a colorful compendium of many uniquely American small subjects, from true crime books and Salesmen May Gyp You, to DMSO: The Story of a Persecuted Drug. In this part of the library, the contrast in the tone of adjacent sections is sharper than anywhere else: our ethnicities section fills the next-to-last bank, anchored by our collection of U.S. Department of the Interior original documents on Native American affairs dating back to mid-19th century. The Native American studies collection is followed by the African-American section; Black Scholar and Negro Digest are here, as are books on the Watts uprising and the works of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Jewish history and whiteness studies are here too. Folklore links the ethnicities sections to our language and humor collections, which fill the last bank of Row Four.

RowFive.jpgRow Five opens in the first bank with women's studies, continuing the theme of discourse and discourses that ended Row Four. All the discourses of gender are here: Soviet Woman, books by Helen Gurley Brown, Andrea Dworkin, and Saddam Hussein on women in revolution; our collection of U.S. Labor Department Women's Bureau publications on women and labor; then men's studies and a microscopic gender section. Sex; then the Journal of Social Hygiene, a periodical devoted to the study and eradication of venereal disease. The second bank holds the family section, with much to read about marriage and parenting. Bank three is youth and education, featuring our set of government documents on youth crime and our extensive collection of historic textbooks, many of which are beautifully illustrated and ideologically complex. Given that education is a major state apparatus, the other state apparatuses sit next to it: the fourth bank has Bureau of Public Health Service documents, followed by our sections on prisons, crime, and law enforcement. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin is here, as are, among other things, congressional hearings on the role of surveillance in law enforcement.

After these quite specific sections come two banks on general U.S. political and social history. Lots of political science monographs are here, as are journals and government documents. Our section on U.S. internal dissent holds some of the most compelling reading in the library: Schism magazine, and histories of federal spying against culturally and politically radical groups. In the middle of Row Five is our section on war and conflict: world wars, and U.S. cultures of militarism and gun ownership anchor the general part of this section. Nuclear threat and the Vietnam war are the largest subject-specific sections within it. The next bank picks up with peace studies: sections on utopianism, liberation theology, socialism, anarchism, and communism. These sections are crowned by our collection of Modern Age books (nonfiction and fiction works published in the 1930s by a left-wing publishing house), and by many of our favorite and most well-worn monographs and histories. Labor studies are not with the other peace studies topics because they fill the entire next bank.

Philosophy follows labor with all of my college texts on the subject. Journal of the History of Ideas is here, as are a smattering of books on psychology, religion, and other sciences of mind. Intellectual "property" links the gap between philosophy and business, being a conceptual stepping stone between the two. Unfortunately our collection of Business Week is housed off-site, because it requires a full bank for itself, and we can't fit it in. But there are good books here on alternative currencies and monetary theory. Economics follows business, and leads to the last two banks: the math and science sections. Popular Science is here, as is Science Digest and lots of unusual books about amateur and outsider scientists. The final bank in Row Five concludes with space studies: NASA documents, coffee-table books about the solar system, and space program ephemera.

The mid-point of Row SixRowSix.jpg picks up the baton of space exploration in the fiction section where the nonfiction section left it off. We both privilege Science Fiction as the fiction of the imagination, of the future, and of humans' process of coming to terms with technology. Our several hundred other books of general fiction follow our Science Fiction collection, lots of mid-century Americana books are here, as are children's books, our collection of workplace fiction, and a scattered assembly of everything else we've pushed our noses through. New German Critique, Prairie Schooner and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E sit here next to Jerome Weidman, Brecht, and Herge.

After fiction comes General Reference: dictionaries, periodical indices, and reference books of all kinds. Directory of Mail-Order Catalogs and A Popular Guide to Government Publications are titles that jump off the shelf. This section is anchored by two huge giants that leave just a shelf or two for the other reference materials. The pale blue Catalog of Copyright Entries here works as a meta-access key to the library. It tells library users what copyrights have been renewed through the U.S. government, making it possible for concerned users to know what materials may be clear for commercial appropriation and re-use. Row Six concludes with the Behemoth: our one hundred and twenty-five years run of the Official Gazette of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. It features sketches of every patented and trademarked object from 1872 to 1980, with trademarks only from 1980 through the late 1990s. It's three banks wide, ten shelves high, and is shelved three volumes deep on each shelf.

But I introduced Row Six at its mid-point. The left half of Row Six holds a massive cornucopia of treats that is necessarily discontinuous from the rest of the library's contents: the Oversize section. Here the shelves are hung wider and built deeper than in Rows One through five. Here the most picture-dense and fantastical materials relating to all the subjects of the library cluster together. Most of them are historic periodicals, from eras when lots of magazines were the size that newspapers are today. What is the food section without the giant Candy Manufacturing and Confectioner's Journal? (with packaging samples) And have you really seen the Architecture section without perusing the 19th-century Builder? As I write this, I find myself getting lost back here between the 11x17 pages of Fortune , The Militant, and The San Francisco Argonaut. Please visit!

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