The Prelinger Library, An Appropriation-Friendly Community Resource

A Wonderful Place to Explore

Prelinger Library
301 8th Street (corner of Folsom Street), Room 215
San Francisco, CA

I spent some time yesterday afternoon visiting the Prelinger Library over on 8th Street in San Francisco and have to say I was super impressed. The privately owned library was started and is now maintained by Rick Prelinger and Megan Shaw Prelinger who open it up to the public every Wednesday afternoon from 1-8pm for Fall of 2009 (and some Sundays). The library is also sometimes available via appointment if someone is coming in from out of town or can’t make another time. The Prelingers are very cool and welcoming and made me feel very much at home on my visit.

I’d never heard about the library before and had found out about it when I saw a photo of this fantastic “free speech” neon sign that they have hanging in it on Flickr. I wanted to shoot the sign to add it to my neon signs collection and then learned a bit more about the library from their website and decided to visit.

Free Speech Fear Free

Philosophically the the library is right up my alley. Not only do they allow you to bring in your digital camera and take photos of the pages of their books (which include some really cool graphically rich material), they actually encourage it, publicly identifying themselves as an appropriation-friendly place. The community spirit there is also engaging — it’s a very comfortable place to hang out, browse, chat, and explore.

Rick and Megan operate the library mostly by selling licenses through Getty images for some of their content and through other outside jobs and freelance work. They’ve designed the library to be a causal comfortable fear-free place where discovery through browsing is encouraged. The books and other material aren’t loaned out like other libraries, rather If you find something that you like and want to use for your art or for other reasons you can simply photograph it with your digital camera or scan it there using one of their scanners.

I asked Rick about the copyright issues surrounding their policies and he told me that many of their works are out of copyright or are orphan works, but even where they are not, that the type of appropriation that goes on there would largely be considered fair use. People aren’t really copying entire books to recreate them and sell them, rather people are using the material in the books to create new works of art or for other projects.

From the Prelinger Library’s website: “Most important of all, people wishing to copy library holdings for research and transformative use often face difficulties in making legitimate copies. Since the act of quoting and recontextualizing existing words and images is indistinguishable from making new ones, we think it’s important for libraries to build appropriation-friendly access into their charters, and we’re trying to take a big first step in this direction.

We are interested in exploring how libraries with specialized, unique, and arcane collections such as ours can exist and flourish outside protected academic environments and be made available to people working outside of those environments, especially artists, activists and independent scholars. ”

Rick and Megan told me that they get about 1,000 visitors a year who visit the library. They have a guest book that you can sign there when you visit.

In association with the Internet Archive, the Prelinger Library has also digitized a number of the publications in their collection. You can browse those here.

I spent some time looking through some old magazine collections on advertising as well as some old photography magazines from the 1920s. There are some great images in these publications and I’m looking forward to many future visits to photograph more of this imagery and include it in my own collection of photographs.

There have been other write ups on the Prelinger Library and I was a bit embarrassed that the first time I’d heard of them was when I saw the neon sign that hangs in their space. I try to keep my ear to the ground, so to speak, for cool places worth exploring in the Bay Area, but alas, now I’ve discovered them and am sure that I’ll be back for many additional visits in the future. It really makes you feel good about people when you see folks like the Prelingers so generously make such a fantastic resource available and free for the community.

If you haven’t checked out the library yet, definitely plan a visit. The stacks of books are a wonderful place to get lost in and a great place to hang out. I put together a small photo set of images from the library here. Thanks again to Rick and Megan for making me feel so comfortable on my visit there yesterday.

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