Prelinger Library Blog

My Photo
Location: San Francisco, California, United States

An appropriation-friendly, image-rich, experimental research library. Independent and open to the public.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Didactic Ephemera

Animator, filmmaker, writer and artist George Griffin recently donated his large and wonderful collection of "how-to" art, photography, cinema and animation books to the library. In this article (which may at some time become part of a longer discussion) he describes the how and why of this collection. We invite everyone to visit, research, read and scan materials from this rich collection.

George Griffin

Some thoughts on my collection of books recently donated to the Prelinger Library in San Francisco.

For about 20 years, from the mid 70s to mid 90s, I collected out of print “how-to” books. Browsing through used bookstores, by now a waning retail form due to the internet market, I would home in on the art, photo, movie, craft sections where there would invariably be musty educational books for amateurs. They taught you how to do artistic projects just like the professionals, especially techniques leading to a commercial career. The essential spirit of this literature was the self-improvement ethos, the typically American, pragmatic ideal, as embodied in the public school and library systems. And it reflected a persistent aspiration toward democratic classlessness, Thoreauvian self-reliance. Or so it seemed to me then.

As a wannabe animator I initially searched for books dealing with any aspect of this kind of filmmaking. There were only two, which I have somehow lost: Preston Blair’s Animation, the large format Walter Foster cheapie that contained a wealth of cartoon tips and the modest Kodak pamphlet, Basic Animation and Titling, containing diagrams and photos of camera stand construction which helped me to build my first rig. When I found an apprentice job at a commercial cartoon studio where I met an older generation of animators and began to consider the history of this art, I discovered an interesting tradition in the field. From its earliest days there has been a tendency toward revealing technique: from Emile Cohl’s and Max Fleischer’s “hand of the artist” to Winsor McCay’s quick sketch routines (admittedly, contrived conceits). Even Disney presented behind-the-scenes segments on his TV programs. And there was also the tradition of skills generously passed from experienced animator to assistant to apprentice. Unlike fine art, there was no school, no textbook, just on-the-job training.

So, in retrospect, I was driven to search for books which didn’t exist, and along the way picked up many others, like a dog picking up burrs in a meadow in pursuit of an imaginary rabbit. If animation books were scarce, there were many other, old, affordable educational texts on visual arts which were related to the arcane practice I had chosen. The exception to the animation book famine is E.G. Lutz’s 1920 Animated Cartoons, part of his 5-book educational series on visual arts craft. It covers history, techniques, and technology with a straight-forward delivery, “with illustrations by the author.” I was amazed to find it in the 1970s and am gratified to see that it was recently published in facsimile.

By collecting and perusing, skimming (rather than reading cover to cover) books that hovered on the periphery of animation I encountered topics that were to become critical to my practice. Photography and cinematography are just as important as drawing and design because the engine of synthetic motion is the cinematic apparatus. The tradition of the lightning sketch and chalk talk, crucial to the pioneering transition of Cohl and McCay, offered an example of the animator as performer, bringing drawings to life on stage. Books on mime, caricature, even gymnastics showed diagrams of “extremes.” I also benefited from the relative absence of books on “inbetweens,” specialized timing, and storytelling in animation. With no focus on the fine points of achieving smooth, coherent narratives, I could experiment with “bad animation”: jerky, angular movements and limited, primitive cycles.

Ranging from late 19th century treatises on anatomy and drafting, gentlemen’s photo journals, books about pictorial landscapes, studio lighting, and darkroom practice, through the enormous postwar explosion of family photography and home movies, these books comprise a portrait of the first half of the 20th century. They are a window into the generic world of middle-class men and their families — well-dressed, healthy and smiling white people engaged in wholesome recreation. They show diagrams of relationships between linear layout sketches and actual photographs, or numerous examples of the same subject rendered with a variety of lighting, drawing technique, film speed, aperture, media, and point of view. These books were often sponsored by companies that sold materials and equipment; or they were journals published by amateur clubs credited to a teacher, photographer, cartoonist, or illustrator, well-known in those days, who also offered a series of courses. All of these advanced the standards of acceptable styles and esthetics so the reader could grow from hobbyist to professional, not unlike the “Even You Can Become an Artist” ads on matchbook covers.

I was primarily interested in the books’ graphic examples. Genre scenes of the ideal life: spare, linear illustrations of people demonstrating the necessary technical tasks; examples of the whole family basking in their photo-reflections; close-up technical illustrations of tools and process (e.g. how to hold a pencil, types of shading, the cornucopia of miniature cameras and accessories). The focus on process, serial variations, and the unrelenting repetition of the same evergreen genre scenes (with subtle esthetic shifts, via multiple editions of such titles as How to Make Good Photographs) — these seemed perversely related to the devaluation of content implied by minimalism currently trending in the art world.


The difference between a connoisseur and a collector is based in the root connaitre, to be acquainted with, thus to make discriminating choices, especially in the fine arts. A collector doesn’t make distinctions and tends to be a completist, hoovering anything pertaining to the subject at hand, no matter how tasteless or superficial. At the pinnacle, according to Erwin Panofsky, is the art historian, the wordy connoisseur, constantly categorizing, scheming, and chattering about the value of the stuff. Then there’s the lowly hoarder, the poor wretch who doesn’t seem to have a rationale for his own aggregation; it has grown to such an extent that in effect it now owns him.

I made a conscious rule to never buy a book priced too high and not to consider them as investments. Unlike unique artworks they would never increase in value; they had to give immediate pleasure. I excluded books which dealt exclusively with art itself with little mention of technique. The engineering of animation claimed my attention; the art would follow in due course. By now animation has been accepted as an art form sui generis but it wasn’t always so. The fundamental marriage of artist and machine long prevented acceptance of animation, as it had photography and cinema. There was an aversion to craft in critical writing, a suspicion and machinery trumped creativity to produce automatic works which lacked depth or personality, even if the design of a single hand-drawn, hand-painted frame might qualify as fine art. This paradox drew me closer to animation because of, not despite, its dependency on technology. Knowing how the cartoon assembly-line worked pushed me to sabotage it and return to basics

To be sure, I collected (and continue to be very interested in, if not collect) other kinds of books too. Almost no flipbook is too expensive, too dumb, too offensive. And there are massive, leather-bound 19th century primers, illustrated with engravings, that purport to educate the young man, no matter how lowly his birth or education, to become a gentleman by learning certain associated skills: rhetoric, penmanship, horsemanship, etiquette, bookkeeping, and quotes from classics and poetry for recitation. Perhaps I hope someday to achieve real advancement by learning these skills.


I also bought a few magazines devoted to the same didactic themes. Most deal with photography and home movies, with copious ads in the back pages often showing smiling cartoons to encourage purchases from manufacturers and retail outlets throughout the country. A recurring theme in the magazines is “art” photos of nude women, even in the mass market U.S. Camera, which was no doubt a major attraction for men in the 1940s and 1950s when the mainstream press was still puritanical. (Racier periodicals, like Swank and Wink, offered cheese-cake poses, quite innocent by today’s standards, but too salacious to be read at home by family men.) Publications offered tastefully airbrushed, “statuesque” nudes, often accompanied by diagrams indicating lighting and camera specifications (f-stops, focal lengths, shutter speeds): pedagogical kitsch. Perhaps more shocking to the conventional male gaze were manuals from Europe, like Vivus, published in Zurich in four languages, depicting un-retouched models. Thus did the mainstream American hobbyist, Leica and lighting equipment at the ready, finally catch up with the Eakins-Muybridge school of realistic nakedness with its overlay of sober, scientific/artistic inquiry.

The example of our culture’s bi-polar attitude toward sex and race also pervades the drawing and cartoon manuals which depict blatant stereotypes and prevailing ideals of gender, all rendered from the conventional male perspective: minorities, when they appear at all, are clowns or servants; women are generic sex objects or home-makers, men are broad-shouldered hunks with pomaded hair-dos. Speaking of attitude, even the great Richard Williams’s recent manual of character animation contains a lot of silly clichés. But then maybe it’s just these kinds of naïve conventions, filtered and transforming through the gauze of time, that caught my eye.


The inventory has 9 categories (drawing, cartooning, photography, graphics, movies, animation, psychology of art, stage and other) and 9 columns (category, title, author, publisher, date, condition, size, page count and notes). The dates range from 1883 to 2001, with 80% published before 1960. All are usable by anyone who understands that old books must be treated tenderly. They need to stay in the room where they are housed but opportunity for digital scanning should be [is] available. Now that I no longer teach I have included virtually all of my animation textbooks, the very objects of my initial quest, which began to be published in the late 1970s, largely due to the demise of the craft guild culture of the studio system and the rise of independent, experimental animation in my own generation, which in turn influenced a pedagogical model at many schools today. They work well as introductions and often cover broad arrays of process, from classical character acting and movement to primitive, direct work with film and material.

The collection can be a source of information for a student, particularly one who wishes to delve into technique as such, or classical anatomical or basic caricature drawing, or old-timey photography/home movies. There is virtually nothing on computer generated animation. And, as with any incomplete aggregate, it is only a springboard to exploration, not a blueprint, much less a final word. Perhaps the most long-lasting benefit will be for those who find themselves wandering into an ancient tomb of lost art and attitude, who take more pleasure in the agents and intent of demonstration than the actual content of the lessons. They might stumble onto or reinvent a narrative of their own, the mark of a true auto-didact: “How-Not-To.”


1. Animation is a small portion of the inventory, and is touched on as a specialty, especially in the Movie category. Most of these books deal with sequence drawing and cel animation, the dominant pre-digital technique, but a wide spectrum of experimental techniques are also covered. This has led to an erroneous assumption that there is an experimental film genre built on a set of particular techniques, like painting on film, or particular designs, usually abstraction. These works are associated with influential artists like Fischinger, McLaren, and Breer, but even they might have agreed that experimentation is only a starting point and useless if merely copied by rote. It became clear to me in the 1970s that cartoon drawing, conceptual strategies, even narrative itself, could be another branch of formal play, which is as close as one can get to a common ingredient of the experimental tendency in animation.

Preston Blair (1908-1995) wrote Animation in the late 1940s and it became the bible for every student who aspired be a character animator at a cartoon studio. It still is. It is still a cheap, over-size paperback series available at any art supply store. Cartoon examples were lifted and modified from Blair’s work in various studios, notably MGM (under Tex Avery) and Disney where he had animated the dancing hippos in Fantasia. His lessons include rough drawings, thorough introductions to timing, exposure sheets, even how to build a desk and the use of pegs. I wasn’t put off by the corny examples (40s cutie-pie dancers, strutting chipmunks) because the advice on character advanced through body mass and timing could be applied to a wide range of action. Most famous were his examples of walking, running, etc, containing the essentials of exaggeration -- codified and diagrammed with arcs of action and volumetric illusion. I bought mine in the 1970s, lent out my only copy which sadly was never returned. When I bought a new edition (1994), re-titled Cartoon Animation, it had been bowdlerized and cleaned up beyond recognition.

Also included are books on pantomime using stereotypical expressions and stick-figures. Gymnastics books were also illustrated with silhouettes and stick-figures of generic, uninflected poses. The anonymous, faceless examples illustrate robotic, affectless characters, quite alien to Blair’s world of hyper-ventilating show-offs.

I currently use After Effects; many others use Flash. But I have yet to find a book or manual devoted to sequence drawing or character animation in depth in either app; most of them deal with “animation” as a technique of key-frame motion graphics and compositing: processes once handled by animation stands and optical printers. As a result the artists using these programs for animated cartoons have relied on experimentation, work-arounds, improvisation, and the oral tradition of apprenticeships and internet forums. Sound familiar?

2. Even smaller is the Cartoon category, though many examples of cartooning are to be found under Drawing. As a cartoonist I have collected quite a few books on specific cartoonists, along with the standard catalog and coffee table artist book. But the “How-To” genre doesn’t include any famous artists. This makes them well-suited for generic conventions, just a few steps beyond the “anyone can draw” linear principles based on circles, rectangles and armatures. Examples often include gags, unfunny today, as well as two even more irritating conventions: hydrocephalic heads and inanely smiling faces. These appear to be the default cartoon style. The huge head allows ample room for telegraphing emotions as well as setting the figures apart from natural anatomy; we expect comedy first because of their deformity. The happiness factor derives from the American character (“I’m swell! How-wa-ya?”). Such early models as Lionel Feininger and Winsor McCay. And of course the naturalism of the contemporary graphic novel revolution does not appear here. Another style not to be found in the cartoon books is the idiosyncratic wiggly line (like R.O. Blechman, who was to appear later, in the 1960s). The closest these books come to a personal style would be The New Yorker school of soft line and wash.

I was initially attracted to the extreme simplicity of these characters. Reduction is the first principle of drawing animation: who can hope to interpret the detail or over-worked line in motion without resorting to cut-outs, or enduring the bristling or wobbly effect of the marks seen in rapid sequence? This conventional wisdom led to a smooth, reproducible line containing character volume, while the undesirable, noisy lines or hinged cut-outs became marks of independent experiments. I have played around with many different modes of drawing, attempting to discover or invent a style sympathetic to the project. And the drawings tend to finish looking like drawings made by hand, yet without a consistent look.

The exception is my square man composed of a robotic, uniform physique: all rectangles, including the head with its face composed of 3 lines, no ears, no hair. The side view has one line for the eye, one for the mouth which can open to a slot for speech. This may have taken hold from masters such as Folon and Steinberg (who, in spite of his rich metaphorical imagination, eschewed what he called the “false bravado” of exaggeration). The context, as minimal as an unadorned horizon line, can imprint its own connotation, caption, or psychology. The mouth’s single line can express a universe of emotion with each length, thickness, placement, and subtle micro-angle. Same with eyes. This style of “no style” is, and has forever been, the basis for primitive drawings of children. That makes it even now eminently suited to the imperatives of the eternal return to basics.

Perhaps the most helpful book for a fledging cartoonist is Jack Hamm’s Cartooning the Head and Figure from 1967 which illustrates an encyclopedic taxonomy of features drawn in the same generic style but stretched and compressed into perfectly recognized facial exaggerations. Here are pages devoted not to a few examples of eyes or mouths, but scores of them, jammed together without explanation: a delectable menu from which to chose (steal).

3. Drawing is the basis of communication based on things, not action or speech. From primitive figures on cave walls or the early scribblings of young children, it is still the first conscious art-making process. Unfortunately it is often hidden with the acquisition of sophisticated language and writing, just as cave art was forgotten until recently. Drafting proficiency is still regarded as the mark of a great painter, proof of real skill underlying the vagaries of style. Drawing is the avenue to a wide range of communication: maps, diagrams, plans, mechanical display. Thus, the category ends up a catchall, embracing freehand, life drawing, illustration, animal sketching (one by Alexander Calder, Senior!), anatomy, perspective, etc. Among my favorites are the ponderous examples of how to hold a pencil, posture, types of cross-hatching, etc. etc. etc. Drawing: A Logical Approach, Self-Expression with Art, The Natural Way to Draw are titles that announce the goal.

4. The category of Graphics/Technical is an even broader catchall comprising the printing trades (ink specimen books and pre-press technique), layouts and mechanicals, posters, lettering, typography. These are the basics of commercial and advertising print work even now. Though hidden from view they are embodied in digital graphic design and publishing. They intrigued me as an extension of my college experience in silk-screen printing for posters. Also, in the 1970s, while printing small editions of flipbooks, I gained an understanding of printing and binding specifications and how to communicate with the people who prepared the plates and ran the presses.

While working in commercial studios I recognized the demands for consistency, clarity, and simplicity. Practically every category of these books illustrates steps to break down a process, using line drawings in series, drawn without guile or ambiguity. They resemble storyboards, a narrative device still important in animation. Even if used to demonstrate how to make or assemble a piece of furniture or how to light a scene for a portrait, they need to be simple, logical, direct: the applied art ideal, made without pretension or personality.

5. The second largest category, Movies (not “film” or “cinematography”), refers to home movies, amateur movies, work made for love, not professional advancement. There are some titles which propose that this craft can be used for commercial ends (Earn Money with your 8/16mm Movie Camera) but the amateur impulse dominates; the subject matter is assumed to be unexceptional familial affairs like birthdays, weddings and kids playing. Film techniques from the feature film industry are simplified. When these books were published, “the pictures” meant movies that opened each week, packaged with newsreels, cartoons and shorts: perfect forms for the hobbyist to copy at home. These books, in addition to shooting, editing, story-telling, titles, often contain a chapter on stop-motion (time-lapse, puppets, titles, special effects).

The Basic Titling and Animation pamphlet contained concise photos and diagrams for processes and, best of all, diagrams for building an animation stand with easily obtainable material. Of course the camera example is a Kodak Cine-Special, but I mounted a 16mm Bolex on aluminum tracks bolted to the wall with plywood levels below. By 1969, after a year of frustration I was ready with the aid of this small pamphlet to start shooting both drawings and objects. Unlike other studio-based artists (and following the example of artists like Breer and Vanderbeek) I had built and owned the means of production and could experiment, immune to the strictures of commerce or censorship.

Gadgets and tricks are recurring themes in movie books. Assuming the artist has a few power tools, a vise, and perhaps a backlog of Popular Mechanics magazines, all the necessary equipment, short of the camera itself, can be cobbled together. Think of gerry-rigged or jury-rigged, thrown together, kludged, finessed, make-shift, improvised, personalized.

This enterprising, mechanical spirit was embraced by home-movie hobbyists and avant-garde filmmakers alike. To make abstract music and films in the late 1940s, John and James Whitney began building calculating machines based on pantographs and levers appropriated from military surplus bomb sights. The same spirit permeates all frame-by-frame projects, from Méliès to today, perhaps because it occurs under the radar, unaffected by the dominant entertainment industry and market.

6. Photography books dominate the collection. Given the present ubiquity of idiot-proof cameras, embedded in every hand-held device, encountered at every identification site, this trove of self-help material seems quaintly vestigial. But there is much to savor here. Arcane practice, large format work, primitive hands-on equipment like pin-hole cameras, darkroom process where tonal variations are combined with a wide range of support material. Even mistakes can be inspiring: the blurred, anonymous snapshot. With every advance of the digital tsunami (automatic equipment doesn’t permit mistakes), there is still a cadre of contrarians who cling to the old ways, who love mistakes. These books offer glimmers of a lost popular methodology which perhaps makes them the most ephemeral.

7/8. As the first animated cartoons were made by quick-sketch artists and presented as vaudeville acts, the small category for Stage presentation fills a special niche. It shows an antique world of theatrical art and reminds us that animation is a performance of inanimate matter. Here, the magic act is folded into virtuosic drawing to produce a stage illusion which has a direct hold on the audience. The subjects portray unconscious stereotypes of race and ethnicity, often as a tricky topsy-turvy or rebus, a precursor of the Droodles of Roger Price in the 1950s. The performance tradition grew out of two conflicting 19th century traditions: minstrelsy at its most raucous, vulgar extreme, and the religious self-improving Chattauqua meeting with its uplifting, moralizing chalk-talks. Thus I have included a minor category, Psychology, for books dealing with the social uses of performance and media, to interpret drawings as keys to personality development or aberrant behavior, or to instill good character, usually along Christian precepts.


The pages of a book are analogous to frames of a film — up to a point. Unlike a linear series, pages are accessible by thumbing, leafing, riffling, skimming. Flipping illustrated books allows you to breeze though mountains of data and stop at any point that catches your eye. Flipping can be continuous, intermittent as with a flipbook or mutoscope (a round book controlled by cranking), forward or reverse order, with freedom to linger indefinitely at any page. No matter how it’s done, the book can yield its visual treasure at random without plodding line by line through a swamp of data.

The printed page is satisfying as a tactile medium. The paper can be vellum, offering a supple, velvety feeling, or coated stock for greater contrast and finer halftone detail. The resolution depends on the printing quality, but even the lowliest printed page can bear closer scrutiny than a bit-mapped file, which eventually breaks up into jagged junk. This is old hat: Nicholson Baker is but one of many who decry the steady jettisoning of books and periodicals from our library shelves in favor of the Google juggernaut of the virtual volume. But, make no mistake, a future without the printed page, and by this I mean with words and/or pictures, would be grim indeed, without substance, tangent, or purchase.

This post (c) 2011 George Griffin

Sunday, May 29, 2011

1959 letter-writer critiques Another Science Fiction, in advance

I do love a good counter-narrative. As I continue research toward the next book, it's inevitable that from time to time things turn up that would have really enhanced the research on Another Science Fiction (ASF), if I'd only seen them a few years back. Today's study of Industrial Marketing magazine brought to life a real humdinger of an anti-ASF story. Industrial Marketing magazine ran a monthly column called Copy Chasers that analyzed and criticized trends in industrial advertising. In the September, 1959, Copy Chasers column the editors reprinted a letter from a reader in full.

This reader, identified only by the initials A.I.H., had a loud complaint to make about aerospace ads. This letter delighted me in its cheerfully oppositional sensibility, enough that I'm going to reprint all four paragraphs here. I can only hope this poor person did not live to be tortured by receiving ASF as a birthday present:

"I think it's time someone unmasked what I like to call the 'wild blue yonder' boys. They don't fit into a market class, but you'll find them poised for blast-off, shuddering under unbelievable MACH's and tooling off with lots of smoke on the pages of Scientific American, Missiles & Rockets, and Aviation Week.

These ads are characterized by top drawer artwork and copy which may be classed as 'Repressed Air Force.' In most cases the copywriter seems to be covering a lack of technical knowledge with a CO2 vapor.

My argument is this: Why do these advertisers think that the man who has a mind so technically complex and an education to go with it, can still be naive enough to be impressed with 'space glamour.'

In my opinion, lots of good ad dollars are being wasted by advertisers who, if they had any sales success in these markets, must have sufficient technically sound sales arguments to present in their advertising. Why then, do they shroud them with ineffectual rocket roar? --A.I.H."
--posted by Megan Prelinger

Friday, December 18, 2009

Thanks to those who have donated materials

It's simple to say that the library is built upon the generosity of many people, but what that means is often difficult to specify. It might mean the work of volunteers who have shelved materials, moved books from shelf to shelf, processed and boxed ephemera, slid fragile dust jackets into acid-free Mylar sleeves, sorted maps, and much more.

But today we'd like to list the individuals who have donated materials to the library and made it an ever more fascinating, useful and unpredictable resource. We've tried hard to make this a complete and accurate list, but if we've screwed up and left you out, we heartily apologize. In the weeks to come, we'll also post a list of institutions who have donated materials.

Grateful thanks to all of you:

Charles Acland • Larry Adelman • Geoff Alexander • Ashton Applewhite • Archimedia • Alisa Austin • Craig Baldwin • Amy Balkin • Lawrence Banka & Judith Gordon • Ottavia Bassetti • Willi Baum • Alan Berliner • William L. Bird • D. Steven Black • Jeremy Blatter • Peter J. Bloom • John Borden • Harold J. Boucher • Bryan Boyce • Eric Breitbart • Summer Brenner • Martha Bridegam • Timothy Caldwell • Christopher Carley • Chris Carlsson • Denise Caruso • Freya Channing • Julia Christensen and her “Future of the Book” class at Oberlin College, Spring 2009 • Liz Coffey • Emma Coleman • Maeve Connelly • Laura Corsiglia • Dennis D'Ambrogio • Drew Daniel • Molly Davis • Mike Deckinger • Caitlin deSilvey • Barbara Deutsch • Kimberly Dunn and Don Stevens • Mary Szilagyi Durkee • Eli Edwards • Eric Eldred • Skip Elsheimer • Yves Feder • Donnali Fifield • Corinna Fish • Severine von Tscharner Fleming • Amy Franceschini • Jenna Freedman • Jennifer Gabrys • Gretchen Garner • Joseph Gerhardt • Lisa Gitelman • Danny Grobani • Dee Dee Halleck • Molly Hankwitz • James Harbison • Amber Hasselbring • Julie Herrada • Arthur Huang • Barbara Humphrys • Pamela Jackson • Ruth Jarman • Denis Jones • Martin Kalfatovic • Mary Kalfatovic • Kayo Books • A.H. Keith • Andreas Killen • Kim Klausner • Woody LaBounty • Jesse Langman • Rick Lewis • Sarah Lewison • A. Mark Liiv • Laura Lindgren • The Liu Family • Henry Lowood • Stephen & Holly Massey • Ann Marie Matheu • Marina McDougall • Annette Melville • Monte Merrick • Nicholas Mitchell • Anne Elizabeth Moore • Conway Lloyd Morgan • Jim Morton • Annalee Newitz • Bob Ostertag • Kristin Palm • Kate Phillimore • Elizabeth Prelinger • Ernst Prelinger • Renny Pritikin • Kathleen Quillian • Trudy Myrrh Reagan • Vanessa Renwick • Timothy Ries • David & Jeanette Robertson • Irving Rosenthal • David Rumsey • Alison Sant • Martin Schmidt • Marc Selvaggio & Donnis De Camp • Barbara Shaw • Robert L. Shaw • Ken Shawcroft • Scott Shawcroft • David Silberman • Dan Sinker • Abby Smith • Patricia Soberanis • Jim Spadaccini • Thomas Stanley • Dan Strachota • Kenneth M. Swezey • Jeff Taylor • Zane Vella • Chris Weicher • E. Jane White • Marshall Windmiller • Dan Wilson • Dawn Marsh Wilson • Gary Wolf • Erhhung Yuan • Pod P. Yvol • Sarah Ziebell • Martha Zweig

Monday, August 24, 2009

Chris Carlsson's portrait of San Francisco's "ghost streets"

Chris Carlsson has assembled an amazing portrait of San Francisco's hidden landscapes on his Streets Blog. Visit it, and see portraits of old "friends" around town, and perhaps places you've never been before, in the city under your feet.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Reason / No Reason

Hmmm, interesting mashup of good week, bad week. First the Bay Guardian award, then we are tickled by the attention paid to the film archive (not to be confused with the library) by Reason magazine through the economic studies mashup film posted to its site. This mashup film is a light critical engagement with the current capital-driven economic fiasco. Yet in spite of being hosted and posted at Reason magazine it is hardly of libertarian ilk. It's thoughtfully done.

At the same time, it's a bad week here at home with the loss of our patron cat, Eddie. The phrase "no reason" refers to the sense of senselessness that tends to accompany personal loss, even though we know old age is unavoidable. Eddie has helped us to unpack boxes of books throughout all the years of our lives together. He has always minded the house while we were downtown in the library. He has helped us process the recycling, and has put out silent siren calls to bring us home when library days run too long. "Best friend of 'we' since 1993." Rest well Eddie Prelinger, 1989 - 2009. -- MSP

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Thanks, Bay Guardian!

Wow, a local honor. We're thrilled to have been designated "Best Place to See Old S.F." in the Bay Guardian's July 29th "Best of the Bay" issue. Thanks!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Libraries as Agencies of Culture

Rick recently discovered this volume: It's v. 42, n. 3, Fall 2001 of American Studies, and features several essays on libraries as cultural agents.

Most interesting to us is the chapter by Mary and Ronald Zboray, "Home Libraries and the Institutionalization of Everyday Practices among Antebellum New Englanders." It's about the role that personal libraries played in communities with little access to institutional libraries. In antebellum New England it was common for those holding book collections to routinely share the books with their friends, neighbors and acquaintances. Some semi-formalized their lending practices by keeping lists; others made journal entries tracking the social lives of their books. Those who had room enough in their houses to set up their books in a library room opened those spaces as "social libraries" where associates could meet and hang out.

It was interesting that this practice of social library keeping was un-stuck from conventional associations of private librarianship with the wealthy. The many journal entries cited that discuss book lending or library-sharing all emphasize the social over the property value associated with the transaction, and reference very modest collections. Also, the many references make clear that silent, solo reading far from being a main objective of social libraries. The "social" in social libraries refers to the hanging out: spontaneous live read-alouds, discussions about books, and the tea or gossip transactions that were ancillary to the activities of borrowing and lending.

Although the scope of research for this article is restricted to antebellum New England, it becomes obvious upon reading it that the social norms it describes are expressed widely in other times and places. In fact, upon reading it I was reminded of Levi-Strauss' invection to anthropologists to recognize that their discipline is a vocation, not a profession. The impulse to build social libraries is vocational as well. I tried first at age 10 to set up a social library; I set up my books on a display shelf in my room and made lending cards. At the time my social circle wasn't developed enough to really allow anyone to take advantage of the offering, but the impulse persisted.

Our library's social circle is happily too wide to allow us to be a lending library, but the impulse is the same. Having the phrase introduced to my mind through reading this article I can't help but think of us now as a "non-lending social library." --Megan

Monday, June 01, 2009

Our Maker Faire Experience

Wow, Maker Faire was incredible! The how-to library and reading room that we installed was fairly mobbed with visitors. Without the support of Freya Channing and Dawn Wilson our booth at the Faire would have been an overwhelming, even impossible job. On the first day, Saturday, we had as many visitors to our booth as we had had the previous year over the entire weekend. We estimate that around 2,000 people stopped by the booth. At least 1,000 browsed for a few minutes, and over 800 flyers were taken. Within those numbers, dozens and dozens of visitors settled into the reading room for a while and really dug in to the material. It was extremely gratifying and exciting to facilitate all these visits. We couldn't help but notice that more people visited the library at Maker Faire in one weekend than typically visit us in our home location over the course of a year. Dawn is above; Freya is also above, talking with the editors of Bay Nature magazine. More pictures are on the library's Facebook page.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Interview with Michael Krasny on KQED's Forum

Our thanks to interviewer Michael Krasny for hosting our one-hour on-air presence at KQED this morning. The Forum program that features the two of us can be heard at It's predominantly a discussion about the film archive with Rick, but secondarily about the Library with both of us. -- M&R

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Volunteer appreciation

The library has never been in better shape. And it's only because of a dedicated core group of volunteers. In mid-April Freya Channing celebrated her first full year of working with us. Amazing! She has nearly singlehandedly spearheaded the processing of our ephemera collection. Without her full year of work on the project, the ephemera shelves would not be a well-ordered assembly of organized archival boxes.

Pamela Jackson was our right-hand assistant in the summer of 2006: Without her help we would not have been able to effectively process the collections that were transferred to and from the Internet Archive for digitization that year. She returned to working with us this spring, and is currently helping with the critical project of clarifying the internal structure of the rough-processed ephemera collection. Being a degreed librarian, she brings a sensibility for organization and paper handling to the operation that is beneficial to everyone. She taught us how to apply mylar jacket protectors to dust jackets.

Dawn Wilson is volunteering with us for six months while she and her spouse are living in San Francisco temporarily. Also a degreed librarian, Dawn is helping us refine access to our digital books collection. Her project is the construction of a series of browsable static index pages that will display links to our digital books in an organized manner. We expect her project to become public in June.

Christopher Carley, the writer and film editor, is currently volunteering to help us sort the film-related ephemera, and is also a part-time scholar in residence pursuing his own research on an ongoing basis.

We thank each of them wholeheartedly!


New Material from Kayo Books

We picked up a few jewels for the science fiction collection at Kayo Books recently. Anyone able to drop in to their store in San Francisco should make the trip. Their collection of sci-fi, mystery, and trash pulps and magazines is incomparable.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Pop-Up Magazine Review

Thanks to the Mission Mission blog for such nice words about our presentation at Pop-Up Magazine on Wednesday night! How sweet!

Visitors referred here by that blog post please go on ahead to our library main page at


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Welcoming Thanksgiving holiday visitors to SF

As in past years, we welcome visitors to San Francisco for the Thanksgiving holiday. The library will be open on Wednesday, November 26 from 1 pm to 8 pm and on Saturday, November 29 from 3 pm to 6 pm. No appointment's necessary during these hours — just drop by!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Come and get some books! (Wed., 9/24, 4:00 - 8:00 pm)

We've been spending a lot of time de-duplicating and honing the collection, in line with our "spaghetti-sauce theory of collection development," which holds that continual reduction makes the mix richer and tastier. So we've now got carts and boxes with maybe 600-700 duplicates and extra materials we can't keep.

Most of these are older books, and most of these you won't see elsewhere. Just a few of the many topics include: birds, old travel guides 1930s-1970s, sociology, geography, European history, etc. Some bound periodicals will also be available, as well as a bunch of Law and Order magazines and a multivolume "Index to Little Magazines."

Come to the library at 301 8th St (corner of Folsom), in downtown San Francisco, between 4 pm and 8 pm on Wednesday, 9/24.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Theoretical Book Club visit

It's been a hummingly busy summer in the library; a summary of summer notables will have to keep for the moment. Today's notable was the visit from eight members of San Francisco's Theoretical Book Club. It was great to meet everyone in the club. Special thanks to visit organizer Laurel Connell, and to club member Ann Marie Matheus, who made an exciting donation.

In the 1960s, Danish be-bop jazz aficionado Jorgen Grunnet Jepsen published a jazz discography covering 1942 to 1962, listing all albums, their tracks, and all of their contributing artists. I'd heard of this discography, being a be-bop listener, but hadn't seen it before. We really appreciate this nifty donation. Thank you, Ann Marie. And thanks to the shelf organization work done earlier in the summer by intern Freya Channing, there was room for it right on the jazz shelf.

Today's visit was memorable to an audiophile like me beyond the donation of the Jepsen books. With the Theoretical Book Club, at least as many conversations today were about music as were about books. Delightful. Particular thanks too to Isabella Battig who even gave me a CD to listen to. -- MSP


Thursday, May 29, 2008

New shelves installed!

First and foremost we owe profuse thanks to our wonderful intern Freya Channing. Without Freya's energy, we would have taken much longer to get off our duffs and finish shelving everything that was waiting to be shelved, as of April. That's done. Then last week, the new shelves were installed! Check them out. Again with Freya's help, we shelved all of the ephemera boxes that were destined for new homes on the shelves. In one fell swoop, the ephemera collection has been made tremendously more orderly, sensible, and accessible. We invite everyone who has ever taken a cursory glance through a gray box to return and dive in: Maps, pamphlets, blueprints, photos, screeds, rare gov docs, unpublished papers, drive-in menus, and much more, await those who push beyond the covers, beyond the book. Deep into the library. —MSP

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ready for new shelves!

Ever seen the back of the room empty before?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Five more years! New shelves!

The past couple of weeks have seen great changes set in motion around the library. First, we obtained a lease renewal that will keep us in our digs at 8th and Folsom through the autumn of 2013! Five more years! We are thrilled with this news.

The lease renewal means that we are going to proceed with a modest expansion of our shelf space and a moderate rearrangement of our holdings. On Tuesday, May 20, new shelves will be built in the back portion of the room against both the left and right walls. Only the back wall with the windows will remain shelfless. We will then, starting on Wednesday, begin relocating all of the "gray boxes" (the ephemera boxes) onto the new shelves. This represents something of a departure from our original intention to keep all print media types co-housed by subject. However our ephemera collection has grown to over 500 boxes in the four years since we opened. At this scale, it became progressively impractical to co-house them with the books, maps, and periodicals on the shelves. As regular visitors well know, the gray boxes currently mostly sit on the floor in Row One, absent of any organizing principle whatsoever. Now they will be alphabetized and easily retrievable. Wednesday visitors will see the project in motion. -- MSP

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Murder Can Be Fun library blog

Murder Can Be Fun now has a blog. The genre-bending, page-turning zine of evil fun has been written and published for two decades by our associate John Marr. Mr. Marr's library of true crime and mystery is a marvel of independent librarianship, and now the library is developing a public face in the form of this blog. Fantastic. -- MSP

Maker Faire report

We had a terrific time at the Maker Faire this weekend. It was an eye-popping blitz of robots, crafts, kinetic sculpture, re-engineering events, open-source workshops and tesla coil sparks. And much more. Too much to describe. Especially since we spent most of our time at our own booth. We were graced by the organizers with three couches to furnish our reading room, making ours the softest and most comfortable exhibit in the faire. People liked the books, too. The colorful covers of old issues of Popular Mechanix and Craftwork and Science and Mechanics drew people right over, and then they picked up volumes to read and settled in to the couches. We also exhibited the digitized flip-book of Amateur Work from 1902 and 1903. A couple of people read Repair Men May Gyp You all the way through. Hundreds of people dropped by our table over the weekend, and over a hundred settled in to read and signed the guest book. We posted photo sets of our faire experience on flickr at both and -- MSP

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Come see us at Maker Faire

We're going to bring a miniature library to Maker Faire on Saturday and Sunday, May 3 and 4, at the San Mateo County Event Center and Fairgrounds in San Mateo, California. If you're planning to attend, please come, sit down, relax and read a selection of old and new how-to and DIY books and magazines.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Radio Ephemera Challenge

We are delighted to announce our first, and hopefully not last, collaboration with the Third Coast International Audio FestivalRadio Ephemera!

Radio Ephemera, which is Third Coast Festival's 2008 audio challenge, invites producers, artists, writers and radio fans of all stripes (newbies to veterans) to submit finished audio works (aka Radio Ephemera) inspired by two books from the library, including the voice of a stranger, and lasting two and one-half to three minutes.

Working with the Festival's Julie Shapiro, we chose five books. Your challenge: to craft a story connecting any two of them, using the voice of a stranger. The books, which include some of our favorites, such as Trees as Good Citizens and The Big Strike, may all be reached, browsed, downloaded and excerpted from here. This is a wonderful chance to bridge text and performance, libraries and radio, past and present.

The deadline is midnight on August 3rd. We can't wait to see what you will make.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Intern achievement rankings results

For June 2006 – January 2008, the percentage of Library interns admitted to Ph.D. programs at Harvard before age 23 = 100%!

Congratulations to Jeremy Blatter, our one and only intern (so far), whose remarkable academic achievement makes our intern program look really, really good! [heh heh]. Thank you, Jeremy.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Technology in Wartime conference remarks

Writing today from the CPSR conference on technology in wartime. The conference speakers all make interesting points that with increasing technological change, the boundary between peacetime and wartime becomes more and more blurred. Cindy Cohn from the EFF presented about the EFF's case against AT&T with regards to AT&T's compliance with warrantless wiretapping. She made the key point that even if the NSA/AT&T plan program for warrantless wiretapping happened to be right and legal during wartime (a consideration just for the sake of argument), that nevertheless the way in which the system is being built is permanent. Therefore there's no way the NSA/AT&T plan can make a claim for legitimacy based on wartime-only use. And the new infrastructure makes sure that non-wartime can never return.

Another thread of the day has been the question of whether the north American public is too un-concerned with the prospects of cyber warfare. Some speakers feel that the public will need a cyber-equivalent to Pearl Harbor in order to develop an ingrained sense of vulnerability. Other speakers, notably Herb Lin from the National Academy of Science, say that another way to look at it is to see that the cyber-Pearl Harbor is already happening, it's just happening too slowly for most people to notice. Keynote speaker Bruce Schneier expressed the opinion that a computer crash, or hack, may have started the snowball that led to the August '04 blackout that hit the whole Northeast U.S.

Throughout the day's talks, "wartime" is consistently presented and conceived as state-based conflict, and the several speakers with ties to U.S. government have naturally presented the ethical and strategic problems facing fighters of cyber-war in very national/istic terms. Quite understandable, of course. But it nevertheless feels a little odd to me in the context of the history of broadly-conceived civil liberties and populist movements (both domestic and international) from which the discourse of social responsibility emerges. Luckily CPSR founder Terry Winograd wound up the day, and had the presence of mind to speak for many about the alternate view. Whereas many speakers of the day took war for granted, Winograd was the only one to explicitly state that we should always question the wars themselves, not just how computer professionals can make war "better."

Leading to that remark, the most unsettling panel today was the morning session on the possibility of programming ethics into robots in battlefields and robot soldiers. All three panelists, one right after the other, expressed no contrary opinions, instead merely varying degrees of optimism about the hope that robots can ultimately be more ethical soldiers than human beings (!!!!).

On an up note, everyone should go to and submit their picture to be counted in the battle against NSA spying. As Cindy Cohn pointed out: the U.S. government behaves as if a public consensus in favor of government spying exists, when in fact it does not! And the EFF's remedy is to create a literal picture of the constituency against spying. --MSP

Thursday, January 17, 2008

And now for something completely different…

The library now has a MySpace page! Meet up with us in cyberspace and make the library your "friend." --MSP

Monday, January 07, 2008

Supreme Court denies certiorari in our copyright case

This morning the Supreme Court denied cert in our case. Lessig explains on his blog.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Library Reacts to Geology

What fell off the shelf in the October 30 temblor? Geologic forces reached up and pulled... Great Science Fiction by Scientists (ed. Conklin); Alternating Currents (ed. Pohl); J. G. Ballard's Kingdom Come; Philip K. Dick's The Golden Man; Tolkien: A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings by Lin Carter; Bored of the Rings by the Harvard Lampoon; and J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, the 1970 boxed set from my childhood with triptych cover artwork by B. Reul (?). The boxed set stayed intact when it fell, so none of the volumes was injured. -- MSP

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Prelinger Library inside out

That's what's going to happen on Wednesday, October 3, at 7:16 pm (the moment of civil twilight).

Illuminated Corridor is putting on a giant event in the street and parking lot outside the Library.

Come for a collision of public art, live music and film inspired by the Library and Archives' collections, featuring many performative projectionists and musicians, including (but not limited to) Craig Baldwin, Cinepimps (Alfonso Alvarez and Keith Arnold), Steve Dye, António Jorge Gonçalves, Killer Banshee, Charles Kremenak, and Gino Robair, who'll conduct his new score to RP's movie Panorama Ephemera. Neighborhood Public Radio will also be on scene, so bring those FM radios!

The Corridor will follow (and slightly overlap) with the Library's traditional Wednesday Open House evening hours, where you are invited to lose yourself in the stacks of an extraordinary library turned inside out for an evening.

Good news for the public domain?

The 10th Circuit handed down its opinion (PDF here) in the case of Golan et al. v. Gonzales yesterday. Golan challenged the constitutionality of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA), which restored copyrights to many thousands of non-US creative works. As was argued in our own case, Kahle et al. v. Gonzales, Golan asserted that Congress departed from the "traditional contours of copyright protection" and limited free speech so as to violate the First Amendment, in this case by pulling works out of the public domain.

We argued in the 9th Circuit that the removal of renewal formalities constituted a departure from copyright's traditional contours, and lost. But Golan's First Amendment assertion convinced the 10th, who remanded the case back to the District Court for a rehearing.

So how is this good news? There's now a split between the 9th and 10th Circuits on the issue of copyright and First Amendment rights, and this split makes it much more likely that the Supreme Court will grant certiorari (i.e., accept our petition) and potentially reverse the 9th Circuit decision.

William Patry presents a contrary perspective here.

There are lots of people to thank for this. Larry Lessig and Chris Sprigman explain the issues much better than we can, and give credit where it's due. -- RP

Friday, July 20, 2007

Visit to the Warburg Institute Library

London's Warburg Institute has often been called the inspiration for our own classification and arrangement system, but we're actually unwitting followers in their path. Here are a few photos from our recent visit (hard to catch the essence of a library through photography!).

Poor Melvil Dewey

The coverage of Maricopa County's departure from Dewey continues. This morning it's in the Wall Street Journal.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Scanning update

We continue to send books and periodicals to the Internet Archive scanning center. Some recent periodical titles that have been digitized:

American City (we have just commenced a long run)
Kansas Historical Quarterly
New Mexico Historical Review
Radio Broadcast
Social Hygiene (later Journal of Social Hygiene) (complete)
Wisconsin Archeologist

We are also finishing Educational Screen (1922-63), beginning the Journal of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) (1930-63), and National Municipal Review.

A considerable number of interesting books are now up as well. Just a few:

The report and testimony before the Commission of Industrial Relations, 1912-16, including testimony by Mother Jones, Bill Haywood and many others.

War Gases: Their Identification and Decontamination (courtesy of Rosemarie Prelinger)

Motion Pictures and the Social Attitudes of Children (courtesy of Ken Swezey and Laura Lindgren)

The Report on Condition of Woman and Child Wage-Earners in the United States (1910-13), in 19 volumes

Why Women Cry: or, Wenches with Wrenches, by Elizabeth Hawes (1943)

More soon!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Chicago Underground Library

We just discovered this new project, the Chicago Underground Library. Like us, it's independent, iconoclastic, and site-specific. Like us it's also a hybrid analog–digital library. And what a tag-line: "upwardly book-mobile." Right on! Welcome to the fold! -- MSP

Friday, June 22, 2007

Provisions Library retrenches

In May 2005 I had the privilege of presenting Panorama Ephemera at the Provisions Library in D.C. Provisions is a walk-in publicly accessible independent library focusing on social change and culture, with a meeting room (suitable for projection and lectures), a game room (which, when I was there, was full of people playing analog games), about 150 subscriptions to current magazines, and several thousand thoughtfully selected, mostly newer books. Located in the Dupont Circle area, Provisions serves a diverse group of people from a number of different communities. After my visit, Washington suddenly seemed like a much more interesting city.

Email this morning brings word that Provisions is shifting away from maintaining an open library. I hope they find the support they need to keep this valuable space open. Here's the message:

- - - - -

New Plans for Provisions Learning Project

Dear Friends:

Provisions' mission to bridge social change and the arts started in October, 2002 with a 5-year grant from Gaea Foundation. With Gaea's visionary support Provisions was able to build significant resources for creative social change, including its library, educational programs, exhibitions and major online presence. Moreover, it permitted an intentional course of development including the formation of an excellent board of directors to help advance Provisions' unique mission and obtain vital financial support.

Provisions' board and staff recently completed a long-range plan that lays out new goals for the next several years. The plan calls for Provisions to extend its reach both nationally and internationally through intensified online programs and the development of a traveling exhibitions program. We will be re-directing resources away from maintaining a large public space in favor of entering into strong partnerships with universities, museums and social advocacy organizations. Future public events and programs- such as lectures and exhibitions- will be presented through partnerships and/or online. The physical library will remain accessible by appointment in a reduced space and/or new location.

Using the new plan, Provisions has successfully begun to diversify its funding base with new support from the Andy Warhol Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Tides Foundation. These are strong first steps in securing essential funding partners, but others are needed. If you or someone you know is in a position to help Provisions to effectively bridge the arts and social change, please contact us at: pl(at) or call 202-299-0460.

Provisions is now legally and financially independent from Gaea Foundation. Gaea's founder, Gaylord Neely, will remain on the board and participate as a strong advocate, and a new board President will be announced in September.

All the Best,

Donald Russell
Executive Director

P.S. To focus staff time on implementing the plan, Provisions will be open by appointment only starting June 29th.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Arizona library drops Dewey

...amid controversy. The LibrarianInBlack raises questions too.

And now it's June 11 and there's a very active MetaFilter thread.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Recent terrific donations

We've been recently pleased by the unexpected arrival of some terrific donations. We appreciate that people have been responding to the recent magazine article about us by noticing items around them that are appropriate for our library, and sending them to us. From Alisa Austin we received a half-dozen loose issues of the beautiful Arizona Highways from the early 1950s, which are good reading about an interesting turning point in the post-War mythology of the West.

From Gretchen Garner we received a copy of her 1980s book "An Art History of Ephemera." This artist's book is a catalog of her landscape photography. Its focus on the ephemeral landscape and the incidental forms of everyday life are in close keeping with our sensitivity for the un-seen environment, and her pictures of rhyming dis-used public spaces and incidental places fit in well with our collection of landscape-based ephemera:

Thanks also to old acquaintance Martha Bridegam, a local independent scholar and historian who has been using the library, and who recently dropped off some issues of the Klamath Tribes newspaper, adding to our collection important contextual documentation of the history of the contemporary Klamath water wars. Thank you, everyone! -- MSP

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Has the Earth a Ring Around It?

It's an open Wednesday in the library and there are seven women working on projects here. Two on a movie, two on a local history project, one on a book, one on an art project, and one just browsing. We're especially glad to have received a visit today from Sarah Lewison, who made some terrific donations. She gifted us with a copy of the small book, "Has the Earth a Ring Around It?" written by the amateur astronomer Frank Back in 1955 documenting his work to photograph spectrographs of the sky during a complete eclipse, to understand eclipse coronas. --MSP

Punk Zine Archive

Both of us have been influenced at a core level by punk culture and politics. We like to think of the library as a DIY (that's do-it-yourself) project, an attribute that's also closely entwined with punk cultural practice. The library also collects zines and independently-published material from the 1960s on, and there are even a few older publications in similar veins.

So we were thrilled to read this morning on BoingBoing about the Punk Zine Archive, a project of Operation Phoenix Records. This isn't a token effort — this is a deep-archives-in-the-works with beautiful, high-quality scans from key zines of the oldskool punk era. There's Maximumrocknroll, Suburban Voice, HeartattaCk, Flipside, and many more on the way. Download and dig deep into these documents of idealism and political culture, and send these folks a donation!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Video, Education and Open Content

Here at the Video, Education and Open Content conference at Columbia, sponsored by the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning and Intelligent Television.

Peter Brantley just gave the "what does a library do now" talk.

Beginning with Eric Faden's fast-spreading viral video A Fair(y) Use Tale, he said that libraries have pursued an offline, passive model: "we have lots of interesting content — please come and use it!" But these days, people make their own media, and librarians are trying to respond, but turning libraries into cafes doesn't cut it. Peter suggested that the new library is about partnering with scholars and IT people, people who are engaging in the creation of media and making it available for the community and for reuse. It's networked, not offline. The good news, a point of departure, is that libraries have already preserved a great deal of video. Peter thinks that partnerships are the route by which it will become available.

Peter's critique seems apt, and I think he's also describing the situation in which moving image archives now find themselves. As an archivist, though, I've always felt that libraries had a lot to teach archives about public access. Libraries (especially public and some research institutions) have done much to keep the traditions of access alive, and I hope archivists will look closely at what libraries do as they try to move towards openness. --RP

More: Isabel Walcott Hilborn is blogging the conference.

...And so is Peter.

Monday, May 21, 2007

More from Moscow

A book fund established in 2006 through the generosity of Kenneth N. Swezey provides us with a stake to purchase English-language books published in the former Soviet Union. I just picked up two in New Haven, From Moscow to Yalta and Leningrad, undated guidebooks that I'm going to guess were printed for visitors to the 1980 Moscow Olympics. In word and picture, these books evoke the last years of Soviet communism and show how the USSR strained to show itself off to the world. Worth a very close reading. -- RP

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Our LibraryThing Hobby

We've said publicly that we don't plan to catalog our collection, and yet recently the temptations of LibraryThing have made this project a simpler and more enticing prospect than ever before. Starting with the contents of our bookshelves at home, we're now in the early stages of building a catalog using this interesting tool. Given the number of books in our collection the process could take years, so it's no immediate threat to our heartfelt belief in providing a counterpoint to the query-based model of access, at least regarding the analog library. But we're looking ahead to the possibility that LibraryThing will develop the capacity to link to digital books. If that happens it could function as a portal to the digital version of our library. -- MSP

Eclipse: a free online archive of smallpress writing

I'm thrilled to discover (thru Silliman's blog) Eclipse, which describes itself as a "free on-line archive focusing on digital facsimiles of the most radical small-press writing from the last quarter century."

Perhaps you haven't read much of what's been called "language poetry." I haven't either, but what little I've read has been a major influence on my own work and ideas, including Panorama Ephemera.

Some faves: Rae Armantrout's Extremities, Clark Coolidge's Polaroid, L=A=N-G=U-A=G=E Magazine. -- RP

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Prelinger Library in Harper's (more)

You can read the Harper's piece on our library here.

Monday, May 14, 2007

9th Circuit denies our petition for a rehearing

The 9th Circuit has denied our petition for a rehearing in Kahle et al. v. Gonzales. The announcement and link to opinion is here; some background is here.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Itinerant Poetry Librarian to Visit May 16th

We are delighted to announce that the Itinerant Poetry Librarian, who's in San Francisco for a spell, will be installing her Library and Librarian at the Prelinger Library next Wednesday, May 16, from 2:00 to 8:00 pm.

The Library travels on the Librarian's back and has accompanied her all the way from the UK, and we look forward to hosting a Librarian of a Library within the Library. Come and visit!

Monday, May 07, 2007

WPA guides and Federal Writers' Project publications

As Gray Brechin made clear in his California Studies Association lecture weekend before last, the legacy of the New Deal still surrounds us, if we take the time to look. There are dams, post offices, schools, bridges and murals worthy of exploration throughout the entire U.S. and territories, and (though many people don't know it) a large body of books and publications that are still fascinating to read today. In an enlightened experiment, the Works Progress Administration (later Work Projects Administration), known to most as WPA, hired unemployed writers to produce a series of Guides to American states, territories, cities and regions. The Guides are remarkable descriptions of American history and landscape written with thought and care, and despite their age (almost 70 years old) still the best books to take on a road trip and read aloud during the empty stretches. Besides the Guides, WPA authors produced a curious array of works, including Almanacs for Bostonians, New Yorkers, Oregonians and San Franciscans.

Encouraged by Writers' Project scholar and authority Marc Selvaggio, we started collecting FWP and WPA publications sometime in the mid-1980s. Most of these are in the public domain, and we've scanned about 60 so far. Here's a partial list, and here are a few we especially like.

New York City Guide, 1939 and the companion volume New York Panorama

San Francisco, The Bay and Its Cities, 1940

Oregon, End of the Trail, 1940

New Orleans City Guide, 1938

Download them all if you can, and take them with you when you travel. Better yet, grab the texts, segment and geocode them, and turn them into a remarkably literate audio tour that chimes in when you approach a place described in one of the books.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Survey and Survey Graphic

In collaboration with the Internet Archive and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, we're starting to digitize Survey and its sister publication Survey Graphic, together with its predecessors Charities and Charities and the Commons. These magazines trace the history of social work, social issues and social movements throughout the first half of the 20th century, and are filled with fascinating text, photographs and works of art from people like Jane Addams, Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange and Hendrik Willem van Loon. There's excellent coverage of war, peace, labor, immigration, issues relating to African Americans, children and youth, urban studies and much more. Though this periodical is far from rare and sits on the shelves of most research and many public libraries, it's underutilized, and we hope that easy digital access and downloadable volumes will pull it back from antiquarian territory into the present.

Here are a few volumes of Survey Graphic, just digitized.

Access to our digitized books

It shouldn't be so difficult to get to our scanned books, but right now it is. There's full-text search of most of our online titles (and almost two hundred thousand Open Content Alliance titles as well) thru MSN Live Search, but there need to be easier ways to find books.

In the next month or so, we're going to try one way of exposing our books a little more widely, which is to generate annotated bibliographies by subject. We'll do this by bringing the Internet Archive database of our books into FileMaker Pro and then generating HTML with basic metadata about the books sorted by subject. The result will be a page with listings (hopefully annotated) of books in areas like urban planning, history of television, Federal Writers' Project publications, birds, and so on. The page will link to the detail pages at the IA and also offer a direct link to a downloadable PDF.

When our books are publicized, people read them; this BoingBoing post led to almost 5,000 downloads of two books on the 1939 Westinghouse time capsule. On one title, the Book of Record of the Westinghouse Time Capsule, the number of downloads is close to exceeding the number of copies printed, which tends to suggest that scanning obscure texts is a good thing.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Digital collections growing

As of this morning we are up to 2098 items. Here's a link to new additions as they appear.

Rankings are overrated, but collecting habits can be interesting. If you agree, here are our digital books ranked by downloads.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Prelinger Library in Harper's

Gideon Lewis-Kraus writes in depth about the library in the May issue of Harper's. It's online right now for subscribers and will probably be open for nonsubscribers around mid-May.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Archivists' archives reprieved (for now)

After many archivists protested, the Society of American Archivists Council has reversed its decision to purge the archives of the SAA listserv. I counted over 200 messages of protest in four days. Many of us hope the archives are preserved and made permanently accessible — I hope the Internet Archive is one of several repositories. --RP

Here's today's announcement:

Subject: [archives] Appraisal of A&A List (1993-2006)
Date: Wed, 21 Mar 2007 15:35:09 -0500
From: "Nancy Beaumont"
To: "The Archives & Archivists (A&A) List"
Reply-To: "The Archives & Archivists (A&A) List"
Reply-To: Nancy Beaumont

Posted on behalf of SAA President Elizabeth Adkins:

To: A&A List

From: Elizabeth Adkins, SAA President

Subject: Appraisal of A&A List (1993-2006)

The SAA Council convened via conference call last night to review the feedback on our previously announced decision to dispose of the A&A List archives (1993-2006). We are impressed by, and grateful for, the range and depth of responses to our announcement – particularly as they relate to concern on behalf of the profession. After taking everyone's thoughtful comments into account, we've decided to work with Miami University of Ohio to explore the option of transferring the list archives to another repository.

We remain concerned that transferring the list archives raises administrative and legal considerations that must be addressed, but we are willing to work to find ways to address those issues, if at all possible. We have contacted MUO, which has agreed to extend until further notice the date by which the list archives must be taken down to give us more time to work out the details. Should it become necessary, we will arrange for a download of the archives list files that could be used in a transfer to another repository.

Clearly this experience demonstrates that appraisal is something about which good archivists can disagree, and we respect the passionate disagreement of the list community with our original decision. I want to thank all who have expressed their concern, publicly or privately, and for the constructive suggestions that many of you have made to address SAA's concerns.

We will be communicating with the list as we progress through next steps.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Society of American Archivists decides to nuke its listserv archives

I joined the Society of American Archivists last year and attended their 2006 conference in Washington, D.C. It was a fascinating gathering — there were panels about challenges posed by newly-found records of the illegal Portland, Ore. Police Bureau Red Squad, which turned up in a policeman's garage; about archives and social justice in South Africa; about blogging (with Jessamyn West); and much, much more.

Their listserv is a high-traffic list whose postings range from trivial to sublime. It's full of how-tos on everything from preserving the contents of time capsules, to disaster recovery, CD-R and DVD-R longevity, copyright, and (illegal) reclassification of Federal government records. I've subscribed for 6 years, maybe longer.

Now comes word that the SAA Council has decided that the archives of its own listserv are no longer worth saving and will be "disposed of" at the end of this month. After an appraisal of their value, they've determined the cost of keeping these bits is higher than their "evidential or informational value." Because of what seem to be legal issues (one poster wants his/her posts removed and is threatening legal action -- see below), "there are significant legal and administrative impediments to transferring the archives to another institution for preservation and access."

If this happens, it will be a really big mistake. This list contains much valuable information, and is a thick and fascinating record of how a legacy-ridden field responded to the Internet revolution. The irony of an archival organization disposing of its own archives (and the archives of an entire profession) is obvious. -- RP

Here's the official letter (a contact for comments is below):

- - - - - - -

Subject: [archives] A&A List Archives, 1993-2006
Date: Tue, 13 Mar 2007 11:38:37 -0500
From: "Nancy Beaumont"
To: "The Archives & Archivists (A&A) List"

Posted on behalf of the SAA Council.

To: Archives and Archivists Listserv Subscribers
From: The SAA Council

After seven months of discussion – informed by an appraisal recommendation from SAA’s archival repository, the recommendations of a Task Force, and a communication from Miami University of Ohio, the SAA Council considered the following motion during a conference call on March 8:

THAT the Archives and Archivists List Archives that has been maintained at Miami University of Ohio, representing material created from 1993 to 2006, be disposed.

Support Statement: The SAA Council has determined that the cost of retaining, administering, and maintaining access to the 1993-2006 archives of the A&A List is substantially higher than is warranted by the evidential or informational value of the archives. Further, there are significant legal and administrative impediments to transferring the archives to another institution for preservation and access. Thus the Council has determined that the archives will be disposed of at the end of March 2007 when Miami University of Ohio is no longer able to support it.

Council members passed the motion, with 8 votes in favor, one abstention, and two absent.

Hence, as of March 31, 2007, the archive of the list from 1993 to 2006 will cease to exist. This was a difficult appraisal decision, but ultimately we agreed with the assessment of SAA’s archival repository that the costs of maintaining the list archives outweighed the benefits. We understand that there are some list subscribers who will strongly disagree with this decision, but we did consider the arguments in favor of preserving the list archives and concluded that they were not sufficiently strong to warrant the cost or administrative burden.

Given the undoubted interest in this issue on the List, some additional background is in order. Last year, when the A&A List was moved to a new software and administrative environment, the question arose concerning the fate of the 1993-2006 “archives” of the list still residing at Miami University of Ohio (MUO). At our May 2006 meeting, the Council discussed whether the List archives should be maintained indefinitely. Opinion was divided. We elected to hold off on the decision until some additional information could be gathered.

We requested an appraisal opinion from SAA’s archival repository at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee (received at the August 1, 2006, Council meeting) that concluded:

The listserv possesses no significant value as evidence of SAA’s own history, functions, or activities…. In terms of informational value, the content of the listserv is highly uneven, consisting mainly of postings with current value (such as news items, job announcements, product recommendations), opinion pieces reflecting the views of particular individuals, and advice concerning specific practices and procedures.

…In further considering this aspect of the appraisal question, [we] consulted two archival educators…. Both agreed that the listserv possesses some short-term value for their students by exposing them to a wider community, current topics, etc. However, neither educator considers the listserv to be a significant or substantial research resource.

Then-President Richard Pearce-Moses and some Council members disagreed. Given the repository decision, they argued that SAA itself should permanently preserve and maintain access to the archives.

In September, new President Elizabeth Adkins created a task force, chaired by Vice President Mark Greene and composed of four non-Council members and SAA staffer Brian Doyle, to study the archives and recommend Council action. Its formal charge: “Review issues associated with retention of the Archives and Archivists List Archives and prepare a recommendation for the Council's consideration regarding…long-term disposition…. The review should take into consideration content analysis, cost maintenance and ongoing study of use of the data.”

The task force met via email. Among its resource materials were three research papers that had been prepared in the 2000s by SAA members as conference presentations and that analyzed the content and use of the List archives. A decisive majority of task force members felt that the List archives should be preserved by SAA, if at all, only if it could be done for nominal cost.

Three task force members (50%) expressed a clear and definite opinion that the List archive should not be maintained, period. Their rationale largely mirrored that of SAA’s archival repository. In addition, it was noted that there are legal and administrative issues that make preservation of the archives difficult if not ultimately impossible. Until 2001 the List did not have terms of participation, making it unclear who owns the actual messages. (And until 2001 copyright rests exclusively with posters as well.) Currently there are two requests pending from posters who wish to remove their posts, one of whom is threatening legal action. SAA feels that it has no choice but to accede to these requests and future ones, further undermining both the evidential and informational value of the list and making further administration by SAA continuously difficult.

Two task force members argued that the List archives should be maintained if it could be done inexpensively. One of these members noted that the value of the List was compromised because the List was not administered in the first place in a manner that would preserve its informational and evidential value.

One member of the task force did argue strongly for preserving the archives: “I think the listserv provides a unique insight into how our profession responded to the new networking technologies….”

Some task force members suggested that perhaps SAA could offer the List archives to another repository beside SAA’s archive. In the end this option was rejected in the task force’s recommendation to the Council because: 1) there is a question of whether SAA truly “owned” the messages up to 2001 and 2) it is unlikely that SAA could compel a repository to agree to remove messages into the future.

To address the question of how expensive it would be for SAA to maintain the archives List, SAA staff member Brian Doyle prepared a supplemental report, concluding that there was no method of doing so that was practical, did not entail significant time and expense, or did not substantially compromise effective access to the records and greatly diminish the usefulness of the archives.

In addition, SAA learned that MUO wished to discontinue administration of the 96-03 list at the end of March 2007, compelling a decision on Council’s part.

It was on the basis of all of this information that the Council took its March 8 vote.

Comments and questions can be directed to SAA Vice President Mark Greene,