Guerrilla Archivist

Photo by Ariel Zambelich

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

By Matt Smith ’90
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Selections from the Prelinger Library

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.”