On the one hand, it’s nice to go to a modern library, type what you’re looking for into a handy computer terminal, then see exactly where to go to find it. On the other hand, before libraries had handy computer terminals, patrons would often wander around on their own, finding amazing things in random places while searching out the book they thought they were looking for.
Imagine a hypothetical third hand, a hand whereon you can visit a library that’s very well organized but in such a way that the visitor is likely to randomly discover amazing and unexpected things.
Such a library exists in San Francisco. It’s called the Prelinger Library, and I just read a great article about it in the May Harper’s (the article itself isn’t available online yet unless you’re a subscriber, so you’ll have to stop by the library and flip through our copy, or you can probably find excerpts via Google). At the Prelinger Library, books on SUBURBIA are shelved next to DOMESTIC ENVIRONMENTS (home repair), followed by ARCHITECTURE, which leads to GRAPHIC DESIGN, which then becomes TYPOGRAPHY, then FINE ARTS, VISUAL ARTS, ADVERTISING, and finally SALES.
Although the folks that run the place know where to find exactly what you’re looking for, the idea is that what you think you’re looking for may not really be what you’re looking for, and the best way to find out what you’re really looking for is to accidentally stumble upon it while you’re looking for what you think you’re looking for. Or something like that. If you’re not looking for anything in particular, all the better.
I’ve never visited the library, but from reading the article it seems the experience is designed to be somewhere between heading straight to the spot on the shelves where your exact book is located at your local library, and rummaging through boxes of used books at a yard sale. Which sounds good to me. If I make it out the San Francisco anytime soon, the Prelinger will be on my To Do list.
By the way, if the name “Prelinger” sounds familiar to you, it might be because one of the people who run the library is Rick Prelinger, the man responsible for the famous Prelinger Archive, an online collection of advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur films. Hours and hours of fun.
-Norm De Plume