Here’s Why We Need to Protect Public Libraries

The Photo Blog
Aug. 19 2014 11:45 AM

Here’s Why We Need to Protect Public Libraries

Library built by ex-slaves, Allensworth, CA copy 2
Re-creation of a library built by former slaves in Allensworth, California, 1995.

Robert Dawson

We live in a “diverse and often fractious country,” writes Robert Dawson, but there are some things that unite us—among them, our love of libraries. “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,” the photographer writes in the introduction to his book, The Public Library: A Photographic Essay. “It is a shared commons of our ambitions, our dreams, our memories, our culture, and ourselves.”

But what do these places look like? Over the course of 18 years, Dawson found out. Inspired by “the long history of photographic survey projects,” he traveled thousands of miles and photographed hundreds of public libraries in nearly all 50 states. Looking at the photos, the conclusion is unavoidable: American libraries are as diverse as Americans. They’re large and small, old and new, urban and rural, and in poor and wealthy communities. Architecturally, they represent a range of styles, from the grand main branch of the New York Public Library to the humble trailer that serves as a library in Death Valley National Park, the hottest place on Earth. “Because they’re all locally funded, libraries reflect the communities they’re in,” Dawson said in an interview. “The diversity reflects who we are as a people.”

Super Bingo, Family Dollar and Mockingbird branch library, Abilene, TX copy 2
Super Bingo, Family Dollar, and Mockingbird Branch Library, Abilene, Texas, 2011.

Robert Dawson

Library, Post, TX copy 2
Post Public Library, Post, Texas, 2011.

Robert Dawson

Truth or Consequence, NM copy 2
Truth or Consequences Public Library, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, 2011.

Robert Dawson

Library, Death Valley National Park, CA copy 2
Death Valley National Park, California, 2009. This remote library in a trailer is the only library for hundreds of miles. The roof is shaded to lessen the intense summer heat.

Robert Dawson

At first, Dawson pursued the project casually, and would only stop to photograph libraries when he had time during unrelated trips. In 2011, he decided to make a push to finish the project by raising money on Kickstarter for a cross-country road trip with his son, Walker. They traveled about 11,000 miles and to 26 states, photographing nearly 200 libraries. They traveled again in the summer of 2012 to 15 states, driving 10,000 miles to photograph more than 100 libraries.

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Even the smallest libraries, Dawson said, serve vastly important functions in their communities. And while many libraries have suffered “severe cutbacks in funding,” especially since the Great Recession, they’re reporting some of the greatest jumps in patronage and circulation in recent history. Increasingly, they’re useful not just as lenders of books and DVDs, but as community centers, shelters against extreme weather, and havens for the poor and underserved. “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,” Dawson writes.

While library patrons are vastly different across the country, Dawson said the love of libraries tends to transcend political ideology and social distinctions. “We 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.”

Shepherdstown, WV copy 2
Shepherdstown Public Library in West Virginia, 2011. This building has been home to a market, the fire department, a Civil War hospital, a butcher shop, an Odd Fellows hall, and the local jail.

Robert Dawson

Yarborough branch, Austin, TX copy 2
Yarborough Branch Library, Austin, Texas, 2011. This branch library is housed in the former Americana Theater building.

Robert Dawson

Smallest library, now closed, Hartland Four Corners, VT copy 2
This Vermont library once claimed to be “the smallest library in the nation,” a title also claimed by several other libraries, 1994.

Robert Dawson

Destroyed Mark Twain branch, Detroit, MI copy 2
Destroyed Mark Twain Branch Library, Detroit, 2011.

Robert Dawson

Abandoned library, Sunflower, MS copy 2
Abandoned library, Sunflower, Mississippi, 2011.*

Robert Dawson

Correction, Aug. 21, 2014: The caption for the photo of the abandoned library misidentified its location. It’s in Sunflower, Mississippi, not Missouri.

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