The Public Library NPR coverage of The Public Library: A Photographic Essay by Robert Dawson, Bill D. Moyers, Ann Patchett, Isaac Asimov, and Barbara Kingsolver. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
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The Public Library

A Photographic Essay

by Robert Dawson

Hardcover, 191 pages, Chronicle Books, List Price: $35 |


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The Public Library
A Photographic Essay
Robert Dawson

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Over the last 18 years, photographer Robert Dawson has crisscrossed the country documenting hundreds of libraries.

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Check It Out! A Photographic Tour Of America's Public Libraries

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Public Library


As a child, I was addicted to television. Mine was the first generation raised on TV, and I remember learning when to run home to see my favorite program by the position of the sun in the sky. But eventually world events, school, music, sports, and friends became far more interesting than the flickering tube. Even as a teenager I could see the importance of books as a way to explore the world, compared to the vast wasteland of commercial television. (Groucho Marx once said, "I must say I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go to the library and read a good book.") Books have always kept my interest partly because they allowed me to escape the mundane existence of my life in West Sacramento into something far more exciting and engaging. They showed me a way to some-thing better.

Oprah Winfrey described the importance of books and libraries in her childhood:

As a young girl in Mississippi, I had big dreams at a time when being a Negro child you weren't supposed to dream big. I dreamed anyway. Books did that for me. . . . For me, those dreams started when I heard the stories of my rich heritage. When I read about Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman and Mary McLeod Bethune and Frederick Douglass, I knew that there was possibility for me.

Isaac Asimov told a similar story about his life:

My real education, the superstructure, the details, the true architecture, I got out of the public library. For an impoverished child whose family could not afford to buy books, the library was the open door to wonder and achievement, and I can never be sufficiently grateful that I had the wit to charge through that door and make the most of it.

The importance of books and libraries is echoed as well in the life of Malcolm X. He learned many important lessons on the street, but felt that his real education came from books. "My alma mater was books, a good library. I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity." Winfrey, Asimov, and Malcolm X all came from impoverished backgrounds and used the library to escape and to discover a wider world. For countless people the public library represents opportunity and hope.

Even in our Internet era, more books are being published than ever before, yet library budgets are shrinking. More is being demanded of our libraries, as they move beyond their role as centers for books and knowledge to becoming centers for community. The homeless often find the library to be one of the few safe havens available to them. (The San Francisco main library is unique in having a full-time social worker on staff to help direct patrons to more appropriate government assistance.) Libraries can function as shelters from extreme heat, freezing cold, and violence on the street. A librarian in Oakland explained to me recently, "Libraries are an essential community service. We do much more than lend DVDs, books, books on CD, and music. We literally save people's lives every day. . . . Public librarians are frontline workers for the poor and the disenfranchised, and advocates for the underserved all over the country."

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, record numbers of people used their local public libraries. After the economic collapse in 2008, libraries across the country similarly began seeing double-digit increases in patronage (often from 10 to 30 percent over previous years). According to the Institute of Museums and Library Services, "Public libraries circulated 2.46 billion materials in (fiscal year) 2010, the highest circulation in 10 years, representing a continued increasing trend."

Sadly, libraries are also among the first to suffer severe cutbacks in funding as we debate the role of government in our country. Bob Herbert wrote in the New York Times:

Income and wealth inequality in the U.S. have reached stages that would make the third world blush. . . .This inequality, in which an enormous segment of the population struggles while the fortunate few ride the gravy train, is a world-class recipe for social unrest. Downward mobility is an ever-shortening fuse leading to profound consequences.

This was written before Occupy Wall Street dramatically brought the issue of rising income inequality in America to national attention. As that gap continues to widen, what is left for the 99 percent?

One thing is our magnificent national infrastructure of public roads, health care, courts, schools, and libraries. Built over many years, these essential resources are, sadly, being starved into oblivion. In the nineteenth century there was a strong correlation between the public library movement and the movement for public education. Americans understood that the future of democracy is contingent on an educated citizenry. They also felt that every citizen should have the right of free access to community-owned resources. These ideas coalesced in the formation of today's public libraries, which function as a system of noncommercial centers that help us define what we value and what we share. In a culture that is increasingly privatized, libraries are among the last free spaces we have left. Public libraries are worth fighting for, and this book is my way of fighting.

During the Vietnam War, while I was in college, I photographed a particularly tense standoff between an angry group of antiwar activists and a group of local riot squad policemen. The activists held a huge banner proclaiming, "We Will Dance On Your Graves, Motherfuckers" and were screaming in rage at the police. The policemen wore identical black jumpsuits with helmets and face masks and were nervously slapping black nightsticks into their gloved hands. The tension was mounting to an unbearable level, and we all knew something dramatic was about to happen. Just then a young, skinny, barefoot guy dressed as a Hare Krishna started dancing down the middle of the street. With long locks of hair falling from his mostly shaved head and little cymbals in his hands, he slowly sang and danced the length of the street between the two opposing sides who had been preparing to fight. It changed everything. It was an astonishing demonstration of audacity and courage. It reframed the tense standoff and averted a bloody battle. Today, as the rich get richer and the rest of us get poorer, I am inspired by that crazy kid chanting a shaky song.

I know that libraries can help level the playing field. I have seen it in my own life and throughout the country during my eighteen years of photographing public libraries. Like that young Hare Krishna man from long ago, I hope that my own contribution can help reframe our often-bitter debate on the American Dream.


The idea for this project came out of a conversation with photographer Brian Grogan and my wife, Ellen Manchester. Ellen and I had been directing for years a large-scale collaborative photographic project called Water in the West, which looked at the shared resource of water in the arid American West. The book Court House, edited by Richard Pare, also inspired us. It was a photographic survey of the county courthouse system throughout the United States that explored the critical importance of this system in American government and society. Since coming of age during the Vietnam War, I have been interested in the things that help bind us together as a culture. It wasn't much of a leap from my interest in water in the West to the shared commons of public libraries.

This project has also been inspired by the long history of photographic survey projects. The first was undertaken in 1851, when the French government commissioned five photographers to make images for the Mission Héliographique, as a study of French architectural patrimony. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the United States government sent photographers on some of the great geological surveys of the American West. My wife, Ellen, along with Mark Klett, JoAnn Verburg, and others, would rephotograph many of these sites in the late 1970s, producing a book called Second View in 1984, another inspiration for my library project. Finally, the United States government documented its recovery efforts during the Great Depression of the 1930s under the group that came to be called the Farm Security Administration. They hired some of the greatest documentary photographers of that era, including Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. The FSA study is now regarded as one of the greatest of all photographic surveys. My project is very different from these efforts, but their national scope and ambition helped shape my own thinking.


Libraries are local, but I chose to view this system as a whole. There are approximately seventeen thousand public libraries in the United States. Since I began this project in 1994, I have photographed hundreds of libraries in forty-seven states.

I didn't intend this project to last eighteen years. Many of the early libraries were photographed during longer journeys, when I had the time. The photography was usually connected to some other effort, such as when I taught workshops in Alaska in 1994 and Key West, Florida, in 1997. In 2000 my family and I took a long drive throughout the American West, occasionally photographing libraries along the way. In 2007 we traveled through Louisiana and parts of the South, again photographing a few. Every summer we have stayed in a little cabin in Vermont. I have always brought my camera along on each of those trips and gradually began to accumulate photographs from places other than my home in California. In the late 2000s I began to focus the project. I made specific library photo trips throughout Nevada and to Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Chicago. I began to realize that if I wanted to make this a national study, I had some more traveling to do.

In the summer of 2011 my son Walker and I spent eight weeks driving more than 11,000 miles to 26 states, photographing 189 libraries. We drove through the Southwest; Texas; the South, including the Mississippi Delta; up to Detroit; through the Rust Belt; and then over to Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; and New England. Unfortunately, we were followed the entire way by a record-breaking heat wave. We called it our Library Road Trip and even got it funded through a Kickstarter effort. Filmmaker Nick Neumann joined us during part of the trip. I would write during the day and in the evening post a blog with my writing, our photos, and some of Walker and Nick's film footage. I would change my large-format 4.5 film in the motel bathroom while Nick and Walker edited the video that they had shot that day. The next morning we would get up and do it all over again. This odyssey was exhausting but solidified the project and its goals.

In the summer of 2012 Walker accompanied me again as we spent four weeks driving more than 10,000 miles to 15 states, photographing 110 libraries. As we drove we listened to two extraordinary books on tape — A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn and 1491 by Charles C. Mann. Both helped provide a context for what we were seeing. We traveled throughout the upper Midwest and witnessed some of the devastating drought in the farm belt. I again posted our travels on our blog, Library Road Trip ( The 2012 trip filled in the parts of the map that I had not previously photographed and largely completed the project. However, at the end of the summer, I realized that I had photographed many libraries in poor communities but not many in wealthy places. So to add balance I photographed libraries in some of the country's wealthiest communities near my home in the San Francisco Bay Area, including Mill Valley, Tiburon, and Portola Valley. Finally, in November 2012, I finished the project by photographing the heroic efforts of the Queens Public Library to provide services to the victims of Hurricane Sandy in the Rockaways in New York City.

Because I started the project shooting film, I continued to use film cameras throughout the project. The 4.5 Toyo Field camera was ideal for recording the details of public libraries. I would also use a medium-format Mamiya 7 camera when I didn't feel comfortable or have time to shoot with the larger-view camera. Over the last few years, I would also shoot recording shots with a small Canon G10 digital camera alongside the images made with my larger film cameras. Sometimes it was helpful to use this camera first, to locate the best angle or most interesting subjects in a library. I found the digital shots also useful to post on my blog.


In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said that citizenship "only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations." New York Times columnist Timothy Egan declared that the American "Great Experiment — the attempt to create a big, educated, multi-racial, multi-faith democracy that is not divided by oligarchical gaps between rich and poor — is still hanging in the balance." Our national public library system goes a long way toward uniting these United States. A locally governed and tax-supported system that dis­penses knowledge and information for everyone throughout the country at no cost to its patrons is an astonishing thing — a thread that weaves together our diverse and often fractious country. It is a shared commons of our ambitions, our dreams, our memories, our culture, and ourselves.

This project has allowed me a means of viewing much of our country over the last two decades. During that time libraries have changed dramatically, especially with the introduction of computers. However, since this nationwide odyssey, Walker and I have come to some similar conclusions: We Americans share more than what divides us. Most people work hard at their jobs and care about their families as well as their communities and the places they call home. And many care passionately about their libraries. Over the course of this project, I have been socked in the jaw by a crazed man in Braddock, Pennsylvania; screamed at by a homeless woman in Duluth, Minnesota; almost had my film confiscated on an Indian reservation in Colorado; and eyed suspiciously throughout the country. Despite all, this project has only reinforced my belief in the basic decency of most Americans. It has been a privilege to complete this study of our nation's public libraries. And it has been a rare opportunity to see what we have in common through the lens of the local public library.

Robert Dawson
April 2013, San Francisco, California

Excerpt from: The Public Library: A Photographic Essay by Robert Dawson, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2014.