To Build a Library

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In 2004 my partner Rick and I built and opened our own library in San Francisco. After many years of intermittent development, the project took over a year of our lives and we began to make tangible our vision of a great and reasonably organized pile of resources that can inspire and enable thousands of projects.

Megan Shaw Prelinger

Issue #73, April 2005


A library, a sculpture, a social act. In 2004 my partner Rick and I built and opened our own library in San Francisco. After many years of intermittent development, the project took over a year of our lives and we began to make tangible our vision of a great and reasonably organized pile of resources that can inspire and enable thousands of projects. As we built it, the library became a medium for us to design our own structure of how subjects and ideas flow. When we opened it, it became a publicly accessible free culture project. I have given tours and explanations of it countless times, but each oral explanation of the library is ephemeral, so I must write about it.

The Bay Area is a hopping landscape of free culture. SF-LAN (San Francisco Local Area Network) is a network of volunteer rooftop wireless nodes providing free wireless service to as much of the city as it can reach. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is hard at work putting sword and shield against Big Media's attempts to eliminate citizens' rights to do a whole lot of ordinary things with their home consumer electronic equipment. A few miles away in Silicon Valley, Creative Commons has developed alternative legal licenses with which rights-holders can stamp their creative works, allowing them to negotiate their relationships with their consumers on their own terms. When Rick partnered with the Internet Archive to put 2,000 films from our film archive online for free download and re-use by filmmakers, the result was 2.6 million access events (so far) under Creative Commons licensing agreements.

Bad Subjects is native to the Bay Area and has been online for free since 1992. Throughout its first decade of publishing it also put out a free print edition. In 1996 I was originally attracted to contributing to the Bad Subjects collective partly because I admired its free culture posture. Our editorial policy of keeping the full contents of every issue available online, forever, builds the stature of the publication in ways that proprietary magazines can't touch. It's an archival model of access, and it's a model based on plenty rather than scarcity. Bad Subjects authors works are copyrighted, but they remain publicly available for reading and discovery. Our authors, myself included, enjoy having our works from years past continually rediscovered and re-read (and reprinted!) thanks to the public availability of the online archive.

My engagement with the Bad Subjects community was one piece of the puzzle of assembling a productive post-academic intellectual life. The library has become the biggest piece so far. After emancipating myself from higher education, I sought to reclaim my relationship with my intellect on my own terms. I set out to articulate my research interests for myself, and to develop an individualized approach to knowledge building. While working for several years at an education research institute, I honed my research skills and thought hard about how access to knowledge is structured.

Most libraries in educational and research institutions hold books in closed stacks. Closed stacks structure access to knowledge in a query-based format. In query-based access, users have to know what they are looking for in order to request it, in order to "find" it. In this system the process of discovery is channeled from one direct link to the next. If you see a book referenced in another book, then you know it exists and can ask for it. The experience of associative discovery is lost. It becomes impossible for something you weren't looking for to jump out at you. Closed stacks prevent stumbling across something on a shelf, or even stumbling across shelves of whole subjects you didn't know anything about.

In my own learning history, some of the most powerful discoveries have occurred when I was browsing shelves on subjects I new nothing about, and observed something about the structure or content of those shelves that resonated with ideas I was percolating about familiar subjects. Often those observations pushed or pulled the direction of my thinking about what I was doing. Observing this about myself and my own cognitive process, I have identified myself as a lateral thinker: someone whose thinking evolves best when exposed to a very wide range of stimuli, especially stimuli that are not directly related to one another. I have always found closed stacks to be inhibitive of my learning process.

Public libraries are standard-bearers of browser-friendly open stacks. My own positive identification with the world of books and knowledge is based on thousands of hours spent in public libraries as a child. In recent years, however, public libraries have had to reduce their numbers of books as they respond to different kinds of community needs: public gathering spaces, public computer access, and public aid desks are some priorities that have competed with books for libraries' resources of square footage since my formative experiences in the 1970s. Also, recent trends in library redesign have emphasized sunlight and open space as enhancers of the reading experience. Here in San Francisco a dramatic, multi-story atrium in the new main public library has replaced the darker book-filled rooms of the old structure. Such redesigns also contribute to fewer books being available on shelves.

When I was briefly in graduate school, I was frustrated by the closed stacks in the university's library and was exasperated at the inability to browse. My inability to have uninhibited learning experiences in the library was one contributing factor to my disengagement from formal higher education. Later, as a non-academic, I had an even narrower channel of access to university libraries. When I began to continue my intellectual life outside the academy, I remembered the disappointments of closed stacks and did not pause to regret my access status. Instead I dove into additional avenues of research.

The San Francisco Public Library's periodicals collection is very good, and kept me engaged with browsable discovery for hundreds of hours over the years. More fruitfully, I haunted used bookstores, new bookstores, and flea markets; I Xeroxed some things, and spent hard-earned cash on others. I savored the smell, feel, and attendant process of discovery that came with poring over old magazines in crowded back aisles of used bookstores. For the writing that both my father and I have done on the impact on our family of the Vietnam war, I rounded up both new and old books. Then I discovered a documents dealer in Oakland who specializes in that war. Several projects developed out of the Vietnam war collection I assembled from those sources: an online resource list for children of veterans, an essay my dad and I co-wrote for Bad Subjects, and my dad's ongoing memoir project. On another occasion I was browsing in the back of the now-defunct Bookmonger bookstore in San Francisco's Richmond district when I made an astonishing discovery that developed into the 1997 Bad Subjects article I wrote subtitled Why Everyone Should Read "Soldier of Fortune." That piece of writing led to three additional published works that addressed points of concern in political geography: two multimedia installations, and a paper I delivered at a geography conference. I had became a modest practitioner of guerrilla scholarship.

When in 1998 I formed a partnership with Rick Prelinger, I was awed by his collection of 10,000 books relating to his research interests and I recognized a fellow outsider scholar. Rick had approached his task in a manner that accounted for a far more massive volume of research materials than occurred to me could be practical for one person to accumulate. We nevertheless experienced an immediate sense of kinship in our respective personal approaches to building knowledge banks. Rick introduced me to new realms of resources that we then explored together: free library discards of books and periodicals; periodical sets brokered by a professional Rick discovered who assists university libraries liquidate their "weeds." Later, as we built an identity as a library and an official destination for documents, we became eligible to receive discarded government documents.

We were shocked by the historical significance of the offerings: primary documents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs from the 1860s and 70s; US Geological Survey annotated map sets, one hundred years' worth, bound. One hundred twenty years' worth of the Official Gazette of the U.S. Patent Office, with illustrations of every registered patent and trademark from 1870 to 1982 (with just trademarks up to 1999). We got that for free from the Oakland Public Library, on the condition that we pick it up and take it away. It fit in ninety-seven 60-lb. boxes, which we hand packed and took away in a small rental truck one hot day in 2002. Most of what we began to collect was obtained for just the cost of postage reimbursements from librarians who were relieved to have found homes for their de-prioritized materials.

As we watched lists of offers emerge from many libraries over time, it became clear to us that much of the history being released from both academic and non-academic libraries was of significant social and political value. The example of the Bureau of Indian Affairs documents was just the beginning. For instance, we were offered a complete set of the 1911 Reports of the U.S. Immigration Commission (38 volumes). These reports summarized the ethnic makeup of the United States, and included phrenological studies of different races. These are the reports that were later used to justify ethnic quotas of immigrants. These volumes are the blueprints of institutionalized American racism in the twentieth century, and they were given away for the cost of postage. A small college in the Midwest offered us a related document, the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement's Report on Crime and the Foreign Born from 1931. Government documents are not boring! An impulse to save crucial documents of U.S. social history became another motivation driving our collecting.

From the earliest day that our collection outstepped our immediate research needs we began thinking in terms of public access. Our evolving vision of doing an access project drove the collecting even harder, and the boxes piled up to the eaves. We began to think in terms of building a library. We began to refine our ideals of what a library could, and should, be. Not imagining we would ever be able to afford to rent a space in our beloved San Francisco, we considered relocating. We looked in every western town we visited, driving by empty warehouses and storefronts. "If only the San Francisco commercial real estate market would tank!" we joked in 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002. Then in 2003 we stopped laughing and started looking, hard, as commercial rents went into free-fall. The 1700-square-foot warehouse room in South-of-Market that we leased in November of 2003 cost us twenty percent of what it had cost someone else in 2000. The warehouse is nearly four miles from where we live, so we now traverse a hilly, and often chilly, urban landscape that divides home from books.

With a space to fill and shelves to build, the library became a tangible potentiality. By combining Rick's original 10,000 volumes with my several hundred, and including his significant collection of loose historical ephemera, the six hundred runs of periodicals we had collected, the government documents, and the thousands of additional books from closing used bookstores and shrinking university and community libraries, we had amassed about 40,000 volumes. When moved into the new room, the book boxes created a pile five feet high, fifteen feet deep, and fifty feet long. We began thinking about how to arrange them. I took responsibility for designing the arrangement scheme.

Library books in boxes

The collection has been built around our interests: landscape, land use history, the built environment, natural history, ornithology, media, philosophy, history, political science, radical studies, and American cultural history. I was exhilarated to roll these subjects around in my mind like marbles in my hand, and play with their arrangement. This process was not unlike writing, but also not unlike sculpture. For each section, I could visualize its size, shape, and the colors of its spines. I thought about how subjects would flow into one another associatively: we wanted to build a browser's dream palace. I thought about how the subjects would rub shoulders with one another tactilely: we wanted to induce discovery by threading resonant consistencies across the subjects. Above all, of course, the arrangement had to make sense.

It was liberating and exciting to think about arranging books in a way that made intuitive sense to me, rather than to the Library of Congress or to Mr. Melvil Dewey and his decimal system. It was intuitive to start where my feet meet the ground, in San Francisco, and continue a "walk" through the landscape dimensions of the tangible aspects of the world, including regional and natural histories and built environments. After a few dozen more subject areas, the last few sections link together so that the row ends with outer space, forming an endpoint of the journey that began with the feet-on-the-ground subject of San Francisco. There is a small fiction section attached to the row of oversize and reference materials: it begins where nonfiction leaves off, with science fiction.

I have been extremely gratified so far at the feedback from users about the arrangement scheme. People say that it becomes intuitive to them in a short time, and that they have no trouble navigating it. The fifty-nine friends who helped us shelve the library in a collaborative labor barn-raising-style party last summer found the organization sensible: very few of them became lost and had to be rescued. The sculptural aspect of library building was at its strongest during shelving week. Heavy mounds of clay-coated paper periodicals towered in orange-bound vertical stacks, while the softness of pamphlets and newspapers were put to the side for sorting into protective folders and archival boxes. Some subject areas produced color bands that became predictable, such as green in the Pacific coast regional section, and orange in works about atomic threat. Contemporary political history books sparkle in vivid primaries, while the "U.S. Cultural History - General" shelf is purely random. Beyond the color and texture of the library's materials, creating a new arrangement for the subjects themselves lent a sculptural feel to the building of the library. We were moving blocks of knowledge around and experimenting with how they "felt" as they were positioned relative to one another in new and different ways. If there is such thing as "mindfeel" to subject areas in the same way that chefs talk about food having "mouthfeel," then that is the way in which shelving the library was most sculptural.

The physicality of the browsing experience was also built by cohering the library's contents around four central threads: landscape and geography, media and representation, historical consciousness, and political history. Dozens of subject areas are built around these threads, then organized bank by bank built from shelves full of resources collected from different domains. We made the radical decision to intershelve periodicals, government documents, maps, and ephemera with the books in their subject areas. This is a drastic departure from general library practice, which keeps resources sorted by type, and sorts by subject within type. I want our nonstandard shelving policy to promote discovery of underrated resources such as government documents and printed ephemera, and to enable items to rub shoulders on our shelves that in other libraries would never even meet. I wrote a full length descriptive essay explaining the organization of each of the library's subjects that is available on the library's website.

Library books -- shelved!

As I write this, patrons are working in the library with a big pile of material from the shelves and are using the copy machine to take what they want. We also provide a digitization workstation, so image-rich materials can be scanned in at high resolution. Guests can take with them on disk digital copies of whatever they would like to use in their own work. One filmmaker scanned in beautiful graphic images from 1950s and 1960s graphic arts magazines, to use as stills in her film. Another filmmaker is planning to shoot stills from a 1940s magazine that she intends to animate on screen. One university art seminar that visited the library was assigned by their professor to find materials in the library that could be used for agit-prop, in fifteen minutes of browsing. So far eight university classes have made field trips to the library, and the best library days are those when the rows hum with curious browsers. The library's goal of providing associative browsing as an option to query-based research has been validated by visits from university scholars who come to us to find materials that may very well exist in their own libraries, but which they could not discover there.

The copy machine and the digitization work station are the best access points we are currently able to provide. They are the ways we make the library appropriation-friendly, to encourage artists and other creative users as well as idea-driven researchers. In the long run, we would like to digitize and put online for free download all of the public domain materials in the collection. Doing so will make the library meta-useful, and enable it to reach a far wider reading public. In the mean time, we do what we can to enable transformative use of the library's resources and marvel at its transformative impact on us. As could be expected, my own research and writing have slowed for a while as the library has emerged out of boxes into the public world. The birth of the library has meant a transition for me from an independent knowledge worker to a service provider in the knowledge work world.

The library's first year has been characterized by the dozens of new propositions for our lives that have been generated by its existence: how will we maintain a balance in our lives while providing public access, how our own work will be changed by it, how we will keep up with it and how it will grow, and last but not least, how we will support it. Having the library in the warehouse space is nominally less expensive than the crushing self-storage bill we had developed while collecting its contents, but we have nevertheless found it an expensive project overall. We both worked full time while building the library in a combination of part-time jobs, contract work, and self-employment projects centered around the film archive that Rick built. Now that we have the library, we still have to work full time to support it, and we have to balance on a weekly basis how much of that work can be done in the library and how much cannot. That calculation determines the access hours we are able to provide.

If readers of this essay have noticed that the perspective of my partner Rick is less well represented here than my own, let me explain why I have chosen to foreground my part of the library's history. Although it was unknown to me when I met him, Rick has a larger than average public persona. His work in film archiving has been known and represented far and wide. His reputation in the cultural sphere tends to lead the reception of projects to which he is attached, even those works where he is a partner rather than the sole proprietor. For this reason, people encountering the library who know of it through Rick's public persona have sometimes mistakenly viewed the library as a project of Rick's, rather than of both of ours. I have had repeated experiences in the past year where Rick was invited to explain or introduce the library to various classes or groups, but I was not. Rick has repeatedly been put in the position of having to explain the necessity of including me, which is an undue burden on him. Incredibly, even one of our shelving week guests who had met me several times but who was better acquainted with Rick's previous large-scale project (an historic film archive) than she was with me, expressed surprise at learning that some of these books were mine, and that I was something other than a helpmate in the library. And she was a woman! As the project emerges further into the world and out from the shadows of its parents' respective histories, I expect that these experiential artifacts will be left in the past.

For myself, I will be very curious to see how my life as an outsider librarian balances with my life as an emerging independent scholar. I know the library, with its hum of activity, will change the way that I engage the world of ideas just as certainly as if a giant new room of stacks had been thrown open. As indeed it has.

Megan Shaw Prelinger has been a member of the Bad Subjects collective since 1997, and was co-director in 1999 and 2000. She co-edited Bad Subjects' most recent anthology, Collective Action (Pluto Press, 2004). Her library's online home is www.prelingerlibrary.org.

Copyright © 2005 by Megan Shaw Prelinger. Photos: Megan Shaw Prelinger. All rights reserved.

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