Amy Balkin: POWER and San Francisco’s Prelinger Library

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San Francisco’s Prelinger Library is self-described as an “independent research library…open to anyone for research, reading, inspiration, and reuse.” I posed a set of questions to Megan Prelinger, the library’s co-founder, as a way to learn about POWER in the context of the Library. Her responses reflect on and extend the work of the library’s twelve years of public access, marked by an ongoing commitment to the sharing of knowledge as co-production and exchange…

If I want to learn about POWER in the Prelinger Library, how would I begin?

Following a welcoming orientation, walk down our first aisle and stop in front of Electrical West magazine, the trade magazine that records the construction of hydroelectric infrastructure across the western United States in the 20th century. Electrical West has many photographs of power corridors under construction and articles about power grids and dams.

If I want to research POWER in the Prelinger Library, where should I look first?

Continue looking at the infrastructure section in the first aisle, and then stop for a minute. Reflect on the offering of the open shelves, and the prompt that you heard from your welcoming host to let your curiosity be your guide as your browse.

You then have a choice before you: You may continue, following Electrical West, to research physical power networks as they lay in the land. Or, you may take the mirror path and research how the Library itself exists to break down power hierarchies around access to historical resources. A third alternative would be to keep walking around the room and conduct a broad survey of the Library’s holdings, and draw a map of where the holdings empower historical memory in unusual ways.

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If I want to learn about POWER in the model of the Prelinger Library, what do I need to understand?

Please understand, and share, our philosophy of sharing. The Library exists to model the gesture of sharing, which is an alternative philosophy of resource distribution to hierarchical models. The Library also exists to model a research and community environment where many of the mechanisms of controlled inquiry that dominate institutional research library environments have been removed.

As the Prelinger Library is a hybrid library located in San Francisco, (how) does it speak to POWER locally?

The Library is a twelve-year-long project that has many facets. One of those is an ongoing dialogue with power in San Francisco and the Bay Area, as expressed by our invitation to anyone to make any kind of nondestructive use of any of the materials for any purpose that serves the future, either “the future” writ large, or any project that is in development for the future. The Library exists to channel historical resources to all visitors in this manner, free of entrance criteria, free of even the prompt to pose a query, and free of any concern for how the Library came into being or how it is maintained. The open hours are structured as a conversation-friendly workshop environment, where people can engage with one another, friends and strangers alike, in a totally noncommercial transactional space.

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Is the library is a response to POWER? If so, how do visitors encounter that in decisions you’ve made in creating and maintaining it?

The Library is a response to many conditions of its historical moment: One is the power of the prevailing political structures to enforce presentism — the state of mind in which the “now” is totalized, even idealized, to protect against the possibility of change. As a historical library (holding very few materials published since 1980), we exist as a counter-space to the force of presentism and its ally, historical amnesia. Another is the relative loss of power by institutional public-access memory organizations over the past half-century (museums, libraries, archives; historically-oriented academic programs); a huge proportion of these organizations in North America have lost resources and been reduced in their scope and ability to support change.

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Does the use, distribution of or organization of knowledge (or materials) at the Prelinger produce any specific type of power?  A follow up: do you have an anecdote to share?

Knowledge itself is power, to some extent, so in that sense the Library gives away knowledge for free – generating power. It is also our hope and our belief that the use, distribution, and organization of knowledge at the Library produce the power of delight and the power released by the realization that such a place exists. Delight and realization themselves open up human powers of creative and intellectual energy that over twelve years doubtless have had an incalculable accumulated array of outcomes.

Anecdotes: People have walked into the Library and burst into tears at the sight of it… people regularly arrive straight from the airport, making the Library their first stop in San Francisco when visiting, even before their guest lodgings…we believe no one has ever stolen anything from the Library…people regularly bring gifts of food and drink to the Library as gifts to the founder/curators and volunteers. This form of expression is a symbolic recognition that the Library’s gesture of openness and communitarianism is more central to its signification than the specifics of its holdings.

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Do the spatial and classification of the Prelinger Library address, inform, or exert POWER over research, use, or insights?

The classification system is designed to offer a counterpoint to conventional systems of organizing libraries. We believe that the two main established systems, the Dewey Decimal system and the Library of Congress system, each encode injustice in different ways. Our approach to a geospatial arrangement scheme is the working alternative: Formulated as a lay of the land, each subject area lays on the land at the same level as every other; it’s just in a different place. It’s a horizontalist system (in spite of how tall the shelves are). The spatial arrangement is designed to make each subject area visually browsable, removing the need for keyword searching and freeing a curiosity-driven mode of inquiry that is not limited by a cursor flashing in a box on a monitor.

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Is the Prelinger Library shaped by the POWER or influence of its users through use or contributions? How much?

Yes, the twelve years of users have had enormous power over the shape of the holdings, both through their use patterns that caused we keepers/curators to learn to understand different usefulnesses of different kinds of materials, and also through extraordinary reciprocal generosity and sharing. The Library’s holdings are about 25% – 30% different today than when the Library opened in spring of 2004, both through the generosity of institutional librarians and through the generosity of individual donors.

As the Prelinger Library has both physical and digital infrastructures, who hosts, serves, and powers the digital library?

The Internet Archive.

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Can you talk about the POWER of discarding or discarded books?

We have come to think of discarding books as formative: Like pruning a tree to promote the growth of fruit-bearing branches. Our practice of offering our discarded books for free to any interested visitor is a very modest form of resource sharing. Discarded books are much more important: Many of the most historically and socially important materials in the Library were discarded by someone else before they came to us.

Are there any materials that current POWER structures prevent you from gaining access to or adding to the library’s holdings?

Not in particular. The Library’s holdings are quite full and over time have benefited from an enormous degree of wish fulfillment. We can’t always satisfy every researcher’s desire because some of the materials that people desire have hyperinflated value in various collectors’ markets. But more often those hyperinflated collectors’ markets disappoint our visitors, not we keeper/curators. [One example: historic photographs of San Francisco]

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Does Prelinger Library speak truth to POWER? (If so, is it primarily through your choice of holdings that reflect on POWER, the power of classification, action towards enhancing access and re-use as knowledge production, or in the library’s social function in dialogues and community-building, or in some other way?)

Yes, the Library project speaks truth to power through all the ways mentioned in the language of the question, all the ways articulated in the above answers, and probably in other ways as well: Primarily we speak for the power of free access to information; the truth of the strength of noncommercial transactional spaces; the truth of the strength of gestures of community and collaboration; the truth of the strength of historical memory to make change to a society that is biased against memory.

Full Disclosure: The Library has supported, through holding and providing access, to the materials in my own project, A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting in 2014.

Visit the Prelinger Library at: 301 8th Street (near Folsom Street), Room 215, San Francisco, CA

For current library days visit http://www.prelingerlibrary.org

Digitized collections are at https://archive.org/details/prelinger_library


About the contributor: Amy Balkin’s projects propose a reconstituted commons, considering legal borders and systems, environmental justice, and the sharing of common-pool resources in the context of climate change. She lives in San Francisco, where she co-teaches Social Practice & Public Forms at CCA.