The Library as a Map

Rick Prelinger and Megan Shaw Prelinger’s library in New York defies usual library cataloging and classification standards. The library is primarily a collection of 19th and 20th century historical ephemera, periodicals, maps, and books, most published in the United States. Much of the collection is image-rich, and in the public domain. The library specializes in material that is not commonly found in other public libraries. The library has three major sections: The main shelves, the ephemera collection, and, in Row Six, holdings of standalone collections and oversize materials. Below is an extract from an interview of the founders (by Contents magazine):

When I first learned about the Prelinger Library, one thing that stopped me in my tracks was the idea of a collection arranged for serendipity. Can you introduce the arrangement of the physical library?

Megan Shaw Prelinger: The library’s arrangement scheme was designed in response to several conditions: First, the collection is unique to our combined areas of particular interest. It has never tried to be a general-interest research collection. Second, therefore, the library did not really fit the taxonomic systems of either the Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal. For instance: Art and politics? Hand-made films? Nature-culture interface? History of the demonization of youth in society? These are just a few of our subject areas that are not clearly articulated in pre-existing taxonomic systems.

Third, for us—for myself in particular—the process of research is inseparable from the physical process of exploration of the world. In my experience, creative and intellectual work flows from physical engagement with the landscape. There are literal manifestations of this, such as the discovery of forgotten places and the collection of forgotten literature from the shelves of a rural shop. More intangibly, the processes of walking, hiking, or taking a road trip are useful activities for developing new ideas or thinking through puzzles.

Given these conditions, it became self-evident to organize the library’s shelves in a way that harmonizes with the process of exploration: Where are you when you begin each exploration? What parts of the world do you engage first in the process of exploration? Where do you “end”? etc. The result is a landscape-based, geospatial arrangement system. This system, in outline, “starts” where the library is, in San Francisco, and “ends” in outer space. Its rough structure moves from place-based subjects to the made worlds of art, media, and culture, to abstracts like society and philosophy, to space exploration.

For example, the first row progresses from the San Francisco section eastward, across the North American landscape to the Atlantic, where it makes a transition to general landscape-based subjects such as natural history, nature-culture interface, agriculture, rural life, and extractive resource industries.

The associative subject flow itself is designed to facilitate serendipity, and serendipity is enhanced by the practice of creative juxtaposition of materials within subject sections. Government documents are shelved near modern monographs that interpret them, and satirical histories are shelved next to serious ones. Subject-matter fiction is interspersed amongst nonfiction, and trade literature can sometimes stand for a whole topic. (Our run of “National Safety News” is the whole “safety” section.)

The library is in two major parts: The open bookshelves, and the boxed ephemera collection. The geospatial arrangement system is duplicated in both places, but only the bookshelves offer the surprising juxtapositions. The flow of subjects within the geospatial arrangement system is described in some detail on our site.


Further reading: Sorting things out

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