Just what is an alternative research library?

Written by Joseph Koivisto


Established in 2004, the Prelinger Library In San Francisco, CA bills itself as an “independent research library […] open to anyone for research, reading, inspiration, and reuse.” It is a small institution that is sponsored by private donations and the Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco and whose small collection — six rows of stacks — is centered on 19th and 20th Century historical ephemera, periodicals, and maps.

pelingerThe Prelinger was recently brought to my attention by a fellow blogger who pointed me to this post about Megan Prelinger, one of the original founders. And this got me thinking: what is an alternative research library and how is it different and/or better than a conventional institutionally-affiliated research library?

The very first difference that springs to mind is the question of access. The Prelinger prides itself on being accessible to all interested parties. Additionally, much of their assets are available in digitized format via the Internet Archives. While many research libraries prohibit access to their physical collection and digital repository, an alternative research library setting does not have to abide by such restrictive policies.

Another difference is that of collection policy. A non-affiliated research institution is free to make unilateral decisions on their curatorial approach and acquisition policy. In this way, the Prelinger can create a body of research material that is both highly customized to the institutional mission and of the greatest use to the identified patron community. Additionally, questions of budgetary allocation are not beholden to larger departmental and institutional requirements. Conventional research libraries must operate under many influences on collection policies and budgetary use that can negatively impact library goals.

Then there is the issue of organizational standards. Prelinger has arranged the library’s collection in a non-standard conceptual manner that is based on her own grouping methodology, a unique approach that promotes shelf-reading and serendipitous finding. While this approach does seem in line with a romantic idea of the library as a place of chance encounters and unexpected connections, it goes against the conventional wisdom of ease-of-use that is facilitated by standardized organization and numbering (I’m not sure if the Prelinger even uses a numbering system, instead depending on a geospatial scheme). Alternative research libraries may be free to make their own policies on organization approach, but are these decision always made for the benefit of the patron?

Lastly, what about conservation? Granted, the Prelinger is a small collection and the staff can most likely manage their collection usage with ease. But, as you can see from this instructional pamphlet, patrons are expected to retrieve books, periodicals, and archival storage boxes themselves, raising concerns about shelf-wear and inappropriate handling. Without a large institutional budget for conservation and refurbishing, the Prelinger could, in time, encounter a large issue of crumbling resources.

The Prelinger is certainly a unique specimen of the library environment; it throws an inquisitive light onto many of the long-held assumptions about what constitutes a research environment. Truly, the Prelinger does exhibit many patron-centric policies that are only possible due to their independent nature. However, some of their practices fall within that realm of “different, not better” and should be viewed with a critical eye. As the discourse on research libraries, organizational standards, and patron services continues, we can look towards the Prelinger as a point of reference for what should and (possibly) shouldn’t be done.


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