Guerrilla Archivist

Ephemeral librarian Megan Shaw Prelinger ’90 breaks every rule in the book.

By Matt Smith ’90 | December 1, 2011

The beige and white warehouse at the corner of 8th and Folsom looks a lot like the other buildings in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood. On the first floor is a carpet store. Out front is a four-lane thoroughfare. The area’s industrial era is a fleeting memory now; most of the city’s manufacturing has long-since moved to the exurbs or overseas.

Inside 301 8th Street, however, is a monument to the importance of remembering the seemingly unimportant remnants of such bygone eras—the Prelinger Library. Run by Megan Shaw Prelinger ’90, the library’s mission is to preserve and share elements of the past others were content to discard.

In a spacious, airy chamber Megan curates 40,000 publications once thought to be of mere temporary interest—“ephemeral literature,” as she calls it. The collection, which she maintains with her husband Rick Prelinger, includes forgotten 1940s commercial trade journals, 19th-century children’s magazines, old maps, pamphlets, and newsletters, many of them discarded by more traditional libraries. For more than a decade, Megan has dedicated herself to a key insight: throwaways are the pith of history.

Just a few blocks away, for example, sits a hulking building that used to be a factory producing Bell Yellow Pages. It’s now tech offices. Few San Franciscans remember this past, let alone realize that once upon a time the telephone caused America to re-think itself.

Megan flips open the January 1940 issue of National Safety News. An advertisement shows a white woman with a blissful smile extolling the virtues of an America “united by telephone.”

“This is social change through technology. It’s gender history, with the woman as operator,” she says. “This emerging technology became almost gendered itself. Ephemeral literature is like ephemeral film: It shows us a picture we don’t see anymore, of what life used to look like.”

Around a thousand people visit the Prelinger Library each year for a literary experience increasingly remote from their day-to-day lives. Standard historical sources, from the Magna Carta to the Declaration of Independence, don’t always present a complete picture of the past. The advertising, educational tracts, and narrowly-focused commercial publications found at the Prelinger Library give a more nuanced historical view.

“Magazines, pamphlets, brochures and the like contain micro-narratives, little stories that don’t always make it into books,” Megan says.

Indeed, a few hours spent in the Prelinger Library demonstrate that as more of the world’s information goes online, physical, dead-tree libraries may become more valuable than ever.

Megan’s reverence for the printed page doesn’t mean she’s a digital Luddite. In fact, she and Rick are internet pioneers. Rick is famous as the creator of the Prelinger Archives, a collection of more than 48,000 “ephemeral” motion pictures sponsored by corporations and organizations, educational films, and amateur and home movies, of which 4,500 are available online. It’s now one of the internet’s richest content troves. Megan was an early contributor, and later director, of the online literary magazine Bad Subjects, which in 1992 was among the first periodicals to hit the web.

A few years later, Rick was trolling the internet and found two articles by Megan about her ancestors’ lives in Wisconsin and along the Columbia River. A correspondence ensued, during which they discovered a shared eccentricity. “I developed an idea after Reed to do scholarship on ephemeral literature,” Megan says. “I was collecting from used bookstores, and from library discards, thinking about what kind of picture of American history could be sketched based on that kind of evidence.”

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.

Matt Smith ’90 is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.


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

More information about the Prelinger Library is available at

Tags: Cool Projects, Life Beyond Reed, Alumni