The Post-Digital Library

In the May issue of Harper’s, Gideon Lewis-Krauss writes about the Prelinger Library in San Francisco, a privately owned and operated library a few blocks from the city’s public library. Its owners, Rick Prelinger and Megan Shaw Prelinger, focus their collection on physical materials working together with digital holdings. The couple sees libraries as refuges for the kind of materials that might get lost or left behind in digitization efforts, like the “ephemeral” film collection Rick Prelinger is famous for (mostly educational and instructional films from the past several decades).

The Prelingers also want to preserve libraries as places of discovery. Search engines have seemingly made research too efficient; you nearly always find what you’re looking for. For the Prelingers, this eliminates part of the excitement of library visits: the unpredictability. Their library is not organized by the Dewey Decimal system or the LOC system. It is associative and geographic. Patrons need orientation and help from the librarians if they are to find their way, and once they find their way they might discover things they never knew existed. As Lewis-Krauss writes, their organization scheme creates a certain “browsability” that reveals “a narrative structure” within the library. In essence, a patron can read this library like a massive text, organized on multiple levels in a highly personal way.

Their library subverts traditional order, but the question I will briefly answer is whether this amounts to a hypertext. They want to keep libraries as niches for certain materials that will not be put together in other ways, and I think there is something to this. It adds a personal touch that databases and search spiders cannot provide; the best part, though, is the Prelingers’ belief that the divide between digital media and print is false. Their library’s organization proves, in a way, that falseness.

If a library can exist and be moderately successful, as theirs is, it’s a sign that something is working. By in a way evolving the organization of their library away from the machine-like, rigid, traditional systems, they emulate hypertext, a somewhat more organic and fluid sort of system. It’s the perfect marriage of the two systems, and a sign that culture might be ready for differently-organized systems (Web 2.0 anyone, Semantic Web?)

Lewis-Krauss calls it a post-digital library, an apt title. We live in era of “posts.” I wonder when we’ll consider the things we create to be the next real things, and not just the reactions or epilogues to earlier ways of thinking. Perhaps the Prelinger Library will be a model.

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