When Bay Area artist Nicole Lavelle first learned about the Prelinger Library — a collection of ephemera, periodicals, maps and books run by founders Megan and Rick Prelinger — she thought, “I’ve got to go.”

Located on the second floor of a building in SOMA, the Prelinger Library specializes in material “not commonly found” in other public libraries. The collection is image-heavy, including zines, concert posters, artists’ books and children’s literature. Appropriation and re-use is welcomed and encouraged — the library even allows visitors to scan, copy and photograph items on site, free of charge.

Audience at the Prelinger Library listening to Charlie Macquarie's talk, 'Mountain, Ocean, Desert -or- Institutes of Place and other Approximate Locations.'
Audience at the Prelinger Library listening to Charlie Macquarie’s talk, ‘Mountain, Ocean, Desert -or- Institutes of Place and other Approximate Locations.’ (Photo: Rick Prelinger)

“I went, and I just never stopped going,” says Lavelle.

Other visitors had similar bonding experiences with the cozy, organically arranged collection, the Prelingers’ warm greetings, and offers of complimentary tea. When the popularity of the library grew and their own schedules became stretched thin, the Prelingers looked for ways to expand the library’s hours.

They proposed a challenge to Lavelle: increase public access to the library in a way that benefitted her own artistic practice. Lavelle’s own work often included presentations (think narrated and poetically meandering image-based PowerPoints), and she latched onto the idea of asking others to create visual lectures on the broad subject of “place,” using images found within the library.

Renee Rhodes delivering her talk 'Visitor Center' at the Prelinger Library.
Renee Rhodes delivering her talk ‘Visitor Center’ at the Prelinger Library. (Photo: Nicole Lavelle)

The first Place Talks, attended by roughly 60 people, took place on Sept. 17 with presentations by the Prelinger Library’s resident librarian Charlie Macquarie and artist Renée Rhodes. This Thursday, Oct. 22, architect Hallie Chen discusses the “grid logic” of San Francisco’s urban planning, and artist Joshua Stulen considers his changing view of Candlestick Park. And on Nov. 19, artist Bennett Williamson and archivist Kate Dundon take the subject matter further afield to cover internet sabotage in the South Bay and the peculiar archives of the Lick Observatory, respectively.

For Lavelle, organizing the talks is an artwork in itself. “A lot of my work ends up facilitating platforms for other people,” she says. “It’s actually really satisfying. I like to have the ideas and scheme and connect people. But then with the execution, I think it’s almost more satisfying to not really know what happens until it’s happening.”

Photographs of Mt. Whitney summit by Chalrie Macquarie's grandfather Charles Woessner.
Photographs of Mt. Whitney summit by Charlie Macquarie’s grandfather Charles Woessner. (Courtesy: Charlie Macquarie)

Many of those attending the Place Talks are visiting the Prelinger Library for the first time. Lavelle sees the events — intimate gatherings with people perched on boxes of deaccessioned periodicals — as a way to prime visitors on the material lining the library’s shelves, enticing them to return and browse on their own.

Though only two evenings remain in 2015, Lavelle plans to continue Place Talks for another trio of evenings in the spring of 2016. “I feel that it will be pretty hard to exhaust that topic, because it’s so vague and personal,” she says. In an area where physical space is hotly contested, the theme of “place” is particularly resonant. “The Bay Area is such a trip, and to ask artists to think about it is nothing new, but it’s important. I would be delighted if some sort of talk about the housing crisis came up, but to not give the directive of something having to be critical is really freeing.”

The second Place Talks, featuring Hallie Chen and Joshua Stulen, occurs 7-9pm on Thursday, Oct. 22 at the Prelinger Library in San Francisco. The library opens at 5pm. For more information visit prelingerlibrary.org.

Uncommon Library Opens its Doors for Artist-Led Talks 21 October,2015Sarah Hotchkiss


Sarah Hotchkiss

Sarah Hotchkiss is KQED Arts’ Visual Arts Editor and a San Francisco-based artist. She watches a lot of science fiction, which she reviews in a semi-regular publication called Sci-Fi Sundays. Follow her at @sahotchkiss.

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