Archives and the origins of creativity

Rick Prelinger, On the Virtues of Preexisting Material:

My partner Megan and I run a research library in San Francisco that we built around our personal book, periodical, and ephemera collections. At some point it got a life of its own and started growing like mushrooms in Mendocino. We joke about how it’s a library full of bad ideas; I characterize it as 98% false consciousness. It’s full of outdated information, extinct procedures, self-serving explanations, ideas that never passed the smell test, and lies. And yet that’s where you find the truth. You can’t judge the past at its best, you need to confront its imperfections. And of course that’s true for the present as well.


A couple of years ago I was walking down the street with a professor who was telling me how she’d tried to get her Cinema Studies students interested in archives, but they didn’t care. I asked why, and she said “I guess they felt archives were the end of it all, the place where films go to die.” This was a big a-ha moment for me, because I realized we’d all got things completely backwards. I thought, what if we reconceive the archive as a point of origin, as a birthplace for new works and a rebirthing venue for old works? If we think of the archive as an incubation point, suddenly a cloak of bad ideas starts to slip away.

Archives promise the possibility of a return to original, unmediated documents. I think this is part of their attraction to artists—the idea that we can touch and appropriate records without also having to inherit the corrupting crust that they’ve accreted over time. This is an Edenic fantasy, but it can also be a productive point of origin.

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