Guerrilla Archivist (continued)

Megan Shaw Prelinger ’90 points out an ad from 1940 extolling the virtues of an America “united by telephone.” Photo by Ariel Zambelich

Meanwhile, Rick had been driving around America uploading discarded old film into a truck, and collecting books and magazines along the way.

They married in 1999, and “it was then that we started talking about what we could do with our collections,” Megan says.

They shared an ethos, too: It’s useful to give away information for free. This was a lesson Megan says she learned during her time at Reed. Then, as now, a private-school degree was expensive, but some of the most valuable intellectual experiences were available to anybody who was willing to sit on the SU porch.

Megan recalls Sociology 210 with John Pock [sociology 1955–98] as “perhaps the best single class I had at Reed.” But some of her most important teachers were classmates whose presence at Reed was, well, ephemeral. “The peer community ended up being the most significant ‘take away’ experience of my time at Reed,” she says. “Decades of ongoing dialogues with friends like Alicia Curtis ’89, Deborah Rodgers ’85, Gary Wolf ’83, Glenna Allee ’90, Joel Schalit ’90, and others are part of the fabric of life that have made my intellectual and social life what it is.”

In 2003, the Prelingers leased the warehouse on 8th Street—cheaply, thanks to dot-com-crash vacancies—and installed rows of 11-foot-high steel shelves. With the help of some of some old Reed pals, they arranged material according to an idiosyncratic “geo-spatial” scheme, moving from concrete subjects such as urban planning, all the way to the history of space exploration. The library is open and free to all comers Wednesday afternoons and evenings.

On one such evening, Megan shows me copies of a newsletter produced in Olympia, Washington, by workers in the Civilian Conservation Corps. Workers for the depression-era jobs program wrote essays about fighting forest fires, cutting trees, building dams, and making trails.

“Not long ago someone came from the east coast who was doing research on the CCC. Before they found our online index, nobody had known this kind of material existed,” she says.

Megan recently mined the library’s collection of 1950s and 60s editions of Aviation Week and Missiles and Rockets to write her book, Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957–1962, which examines the exaggerated advertising claims made by technology companies. (By now, according to the earnest, yet fantastical advertisements, we should have been gardening on the moon.)

Among San Francisco intelligentsia, the Prelingers are known as guerrilla archivists. But Megan doesn’t come across as a renegade. Her genteel, soft-spoken manner, and zeal for sharing and explaining the treasures in her stacks, comes across as a Platonic ideal of the old-time librarian. Indeed, she says she’s simply maintaining a grand tradition that predates the Royal Library of Alexandria. Every library now in existence, she says, began as a small collection.

“We fit into the American tradition of ‘home libraries,’ where people would lend books to friends and neighbors during the 18th century and going into the 19th,” she says. “We’re also in the tradition of private research libraries. That’s how institutional libraries were eventually started.”

As if to confirm its place in the bibliosophic community, she notes that the Prelinger Library regularly gets visits from honeymooning librarians.

Honeymoons, after all, consist of fleeting, ephemeral moments whose significance deepens with time.


Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957–1962, by Megan Shaw Prelinger ’90.

More information about the Prelinger Library is available online.

—Author info: Matt Smith ’90 is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.