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Rick Prelinger - Online Archives, Creativity & Serendipity
San Francisco, April 2007 
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Rick Prelinger is the creator and curator of the biggest moving image archive on the internet offering material that can be reused for commercial purposes. Here he explains why he put the films, which he also sells as stock footage, online and what the results have been. He talks of his offline library without computers, and how that relates to the value of serendipity in the time of rthe query driven information environment.

Play from beginning
00:00:00 Interview with Rick Prelinger
00:00:05 So the Prelinger archives online stemmed out of casual conversation
00:00:11 that I had when I first got on the phone with Brewster Kahle in 1999
00:00:16 and within the first 20 seconds he said: "Do you want to put your archive online for free?"
00:00:21 And I started to stutter, I said "I make money
00:00:24 charging for access to my collection, how could I give it away, I don't know about this".
00:00:29 And I was new to California, I hadn't been inculcated in the values
00:00:35 of the open source movement and I knew nothing about free culture.
00:00:37 But after thinking about it for a while I realized this was an experiment worth trying because
00:00:45 I'm a contrarian and I felt that there were a lot of things wrong about the
00:00:49 whole archival and stock footage world.
00:00:51 And in addition we had always given out footage for free or just for duplication costs
00:00:56 to worthwhile projects like this one or social and cultural artistic community projects
00:01:03 that we wanted to see - do our little bit to help enable.
00:01:06 But it was expensive, because it cost just as much to give something away
00:01:10 as it does to charge for it, it's still time and all that, so in a lot of ways
00:01:16 this seemed like it offered us a way to do the right thing without experiencing the adverse consequences of doing that
00:01:23 and beginning at the start of 2001 we started to put material online.
00:01:30 To the best of our knowledge we've had over 7 million films downloaded
00:01:34 Now this may not seem like much but these are very obscure films,
00:01:39 the most well known film that we've put up "is Duck and Cover".
00:01:42 But there's a lot of stuff that's of interest just to rail-road buffs and train-spotters,
00:01:47 or the telephone collectors, or the people interested in the history of
00:01:52 Southern California, the small slices, small interest groups.
00:01:58 But all in all we think about 7 million films, our estimate,
00:02:03 and this is an educated estimate, is that about 80,000 derivative works
00:02:09 have been made from the material that we've put up online.
00:02:14 A lot of people who own content or who control content or who are gatekeepers to content,
00:02:22 are freaked out about giving things away and our experience has been
00:02:26 to them, very counter intuitive.
00:02:28 To us quite fulfilling what we found after we put all this material up online,
00:02:33 and we put all our good stuff, the stuff that we knew people wanted, is that our sales went up.
00:02:40 One of the things that intrigues me tremendously about the proliferation of material
00:02:44 that's out there in the world for people to grab is the potential creation of millions of new authors.
00:02:52 And the consequent breakdown of that long lasting barrier between
00:02:57 consumers and producers that's bandied about all over the place as participatory media
00:03:02 My personal experience is that when you begin to get millions
00:03:07 of new authors really, really interesting things can happen.
00:03:10 And from an archivist's point of view, or a librarian's point of view when you put
00:03:14 put primary materials in the hands of ordinary citizens really interesting things can happen.
00:03:21 History is no longer the province of academics and intellectuals,
00:03:28 definitions of culture begin to shift and change in very interesting ways
00:03:33 and as we know questions of what's high culture and what's low culture often get inverted
00:03:38 or scrambled in ways that I think are tremendously productive.
00:03:47 Larry Lessig talks about the model of scarcity being supplanted by the model of plenty,
00:03:52 which is a way of thinking that I like a lot. When the model of plenty begins to rule,
00:03:59 as I think it is now, people have a tremendous amount of information at their disposal.
00:04:04 Some of it is fact, some of it is not necessarily fact, but in terms of history,
00:04:10 which is what i work with, when you put history in the hands of ordinary people
00:04:17 you enable them to do what I call historical intervention.
00:04:21 Our archive is a historical intervention, this library is a historical intervention.
00:04:27 It means re-injecting the past, re-injecting the content, the discourse, the ideas, the text,
00:04:36 the images of the past, into the present and giving
00:04:39 us the opportunity to look at the present differently.
00:04:42 In other words recontextualizing the present through infusion
00:04:47 of historical material - tremendously exciting.
00:04:50 It means it gives us the opportunity to snap ourselves out of this eternalised present
00:04:56 where we believe that everything is new, everything is fresh,
00:05:00 we're the first generation to experience what's happening now.
00:05:05 I actually find it provocative and fascinating, when I started showing people old educational
00:05:13 and industrial films back in the 80s I realized that we all had tremendously sterotypical ideas
00:05:19 about the 30, 40s, 50s and 60s in American life, and when I started showing people these films,
00:05:27 quickly, in conversation, we could move beyond these simplified formulations like
00:05:32 'it was a simpler time', 'people were kinder', 'it was safer',
00:05:36 'it was better for kids', 'there was no dissent in the 50s'.
00:05:40 All these simplified ideas kind of fell away
00:05:43 and we could see the past and the present in its complexity.
00:05:49 In general I'm all for abundance because I think it enables new forms of
00:05:55 social expression and critique but I don't think that's inherently true.
00:06:00 People could always go to libraries and use what they find in libraries in different ways.
00:06:05 Its not so much the pre-existence of a lot of information that changes it, I think it's
00:06:12 the use that people make of it.
00:06:14 I think to me the abundance of authors and the abundance of voices is much more central.
00:06:22 You know all over the place there's these amazing stories about people,
00:06:26 making new work without permission and using the net as
00:06:29 this amazing distribution system.
00:06:31 I made this fairly rarified experimental feature film,
00:06:35 put it online and got into the Rotterdam film festival, got reviewed in the New York Times.
00:06:40 I'm fundable now to make more work in ways that I wasn't before,
00:06:45 and I'm not even the most... I'm one of a million examples.
00:06:50 What interests me is the fact that the world is bifurcated
00:06:55 between people who believe that they can do that and know they can and often do it,
00:06:59 that see it as an opportunity,
00:07:01 And then the other group who's often older, more established,
00:07:06 who's completely threatened by that.
00:07:08 So the world of documentary film is very interesting.
00:07:10 Documentary film makers have always been interested in getting their work presented
00:07:14 behind the red velvet curtain.
00:07:16 PBS, Prime Time, HBO, Theatrical, Channel 4 UK.
00:07:24 There has always been this interest in the best possible presentation for your film,
00:07:30 and that system can only absorb a small number of works at anyone time.
00:07:35 And a lot of people from that group who have great talent and great abilities
00:07:40 to do wonderful work don't want to make online work, for them the web is for lower life forms
00:07:46 or for people who are just getting established.
00:07:49 And what I'd be very concerned about is trying to get these people won over to this much more
00:07:55 open system - it means they have to compete, it means they lose privilege,
00:07:59 they lose that sort of handicap they already have.
00:08:03 But that to me is a big problem, that there are people who basically
00:08:08 don't want to pick up these great tools that are there.
00:08:12 We need to also move away from a query driven internet
00:08:17 where you have a search engine and you fill the box with something that you think you want,
00:08:23 you put your intention in the box, and then something comes back to you.
00:08:27 We need to be able to surprise people.
00:08:30 This was great about the early net and the ???C
00:08:34 and the what's new and the what's cool-buttons, you'd be surprised.
00:08:39 So in Google you have the I'm feeling lucky- button but you don't have the surprise me-button
00:08:46 Serendipity, discovery surprise -
00:08:49 very, very powerful functions psychologically - again, endangered species.
00:08:55 This library which my partner Megan and I built is about serendipity.
00:09:01 It has an idiosyncratic taxonomy that Megan designed, the idea's that you go to
00:09:04 an area of interest and then you become surprised.
00:09:09 We don have a catalogue, we're not query based,
00:09:12 we're not the typical library where the first thing you see when you walk in the atrium
00:09:16 is a computer asking you to formulate a query and then it tells you where to find a book.
00:09:21 We don't believe in that.
00:09:23 We believe in letting people look at the books and be surprised so
00:09:29 a writer recently said about us that we want people to find what they're not looking for.
00:09:36 This is getting to be hard to do online bb because things are all query based.
00:09:41 You could do wonderful things with databases especially when they're very, very large
00:09:46 mass databases but just like science is science, medicine, education
00:09:54 and the criminal justice system are trying to breed out the unusual
00:09:58 and shift us in the direction of a monoculture.
00:10:01 In a lot of ways this is what a query based interface do in terms of knowledge.
00:10:08 How are we going to be surprised? How are we going to be exposed to new things?
00:10:13 I think we really need to keep that alive.