Uses This

Interview

What do people use to get the job done?

Megan Prelinger
Photo by Rick Prelinger (© 2014).

Megan Prelinger

Writer, historian, librarian, naturalist

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm a writer, a historian, a builder of libraries, and a naturalist, all in one!

I took a college degree in Anthropology which taught me how to see patterns across all different kinds of environments. That pattern-spotting skill led me to the kind of work that I do. Across all the years of my early adulthood I collected books and considered different kinds of ways of approaching historical research. What would a cultural (anthropological) perspective on historical materials yield?

A lifetime of voracious consumption of science fiction also contributed to this worldview: It made it hard for me to see existing categories as fixed, and led me to see boundaries as mutable, and my own life story as a story that I was writing, which inspired me to feel that I could insert new plot elements at any point. In the mid-2000s my study of historical evidence prompted me to become a historian of technology, as well as a historian of graphic art. My approach to both disciplines is through the other one. (i.e.,: the history of technology as seen through the eyes of graphic artists; and the history of graphic art as seen through the eyes of the history of the technologies that artists were tasked with painting.)

During my 20s, I supported myself through different day jobs while contemplating an intervention into how historical materials are collected and utilized. My partner, Rick Prelinger and I had common approaches in this regard, and in 2004 we opened our combined research collections to the public as an independent research library.

For the first seven years of our library, I supported my share of its rent through a half-time day job as a clinic manager at a wildlife hospital. I was a wildlife rehabilitator and oil spill responder. I was co-leader of the pre-release conditioning unit in the response to the Cosco Busan oil spill in 2007

It was during those years, and through studying the library's collection, that the fields of the history of technology and the history of graphic art collided fruitfully in my mind.

Since 2008 I've been a full-time freelance writer and consultant to museums and libraries. In 2010 Blast Books published my first monograph, Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957-62.

Between 2009 and 2013 Rick and I were jointly artists in residence at the Exploratorium. We assisted the Museum in the development of the Bay Observatory gallery and contributed a permanent exhibit to the gallery titled the Bay Observatory Library.

In 2013 and 2014 I wrote Inside the Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age, which was published in 2015 by W.W. Norton.

Since 2011 I have been a resident naturalist and leader of birding field trips for San Francisco Nature Education.

What hardware do you use?

My books are written on a MacBook Pro. Other essential hardware is the shelving that holds all my research materials! In our library that's open to the public, that shelving is made of steel. At home, there are both wooden shelves and chrome snap-together shelves.

For naturalist field trips I use binoculars made both by Leica and by Swarovski.

For backups of my work I use WD My Passport Ultra hard drives.

And what software?

I use a host of different tools for my work. For quick notes and rough drafts I rely on TextEdit because it is so simple and easy to use. In the past I've used BBEdit and Emacs and OpenOffice.

To organize individual findings during the process of research, I use a FileMaker database.

Then I pull out the big wrench and hammer when a job needs finishing for an outside audience: Microsoft Word. In my experience MS Word peaked in usability around versions 5.0 or 5.2. From there the venerable tool began a slide toward being overloaded with excess functionalites, making for a crowded, distracting, overstimulating work environment. That's why I no longer use it for the early stages of writing. Editors like to receive their files in MS Word, however, so I use it for finishing projects. It's also the only program that does footnotes and endnotes correctly, so it's essential for any nonfiction writing that's headed for publication.

For graphics I use OpenOffice's Drawing program. It's clunky and imperfect but it basically works and there aren't any other options anymore. I used to use Adobe products, but since that company migrated to a subscription model of software distribution their products are out of reach for casual, occasional users like myself. I only create two or three graphics projects every year and none of them have commercial applications, so Adobe's subscription model brought an end to my use of their products. That's too bad, since I had invested over 20 years in getting talented with them! It's also unfortunate because so many of my much-loved graphics projects, such as our library's logo design, are locked up in inaccessible FreeHand or InDesign files.

What would be your dream setup?

My dream setup would be to have a working Adobe graphics program again, and a word processing program that hit the sweet spot between the simplicity of TextEdit and the essential functionalities of Microsoft Word.

I'd also like for my next-door neighbors to trim their trees so that I could see a bit further from my window. It helps a screen worker to rest their eyeballs by looking out a window and focusing on a distant horizon several times a day.