The magazine of the photo-essay
August 2018 back issue
The Public Library A Photographic Essay
“A free, really high quality photo-essay magazine.  Fabulous!” Stephen Fry. British actor, writer and film maker
by Robert Dawson
These photographs present an overview of my nation-wide, eighteen-year survey of public libraries throughout the United States. There are approximately 17,000 public libraries in our country and these photographs reflect my interest in documenting the broadest range of this system from the poorest to the wealthiest, the oldest to the newest, the smallest to the largest, and the most crowded or the most isolated and even abandoned. As I photographed this dynamic system over the years, I witnessed a profound change in its identity and purpose. I have always thought of public libraries as beacons of hope in the dark. It saddened me to come upon a library that had been destroyed either through natural disaster, neglect or the economic collapse of the local community. Throughout their long history, public libraries in America have shown us a way to something better. What would we become as a nation without them? The concept of a public library began in many places. The world’s first tax-supported public library began in Peterborough, NH in 1833. Other types of libraries pre-dated and followed this
important idea. Many eventually coalesced into our contemporary system of publicly financed, community owned libraries.
Destroyed Mark Twain Branch Library, Detroit, MI 2011.
Central Library, Seattle, WA 2009                      Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Ramus were principal designers for this library that opened in 2004.
Athenaeum Library, St. Johnsbury, VT 2001                                                               The painting is by the famous nineteenth-century German-American artist Alfred Bierstadt of Yosemite Valley in California.
Library built by ex-slaves, Allensworth, CA.1995 The remarkable life of Allen Allensworth began as a slave in Kentucky in 1842. He later became a petty officer in the US Navy, a Baptist minister and a Chaplin in the US Army. He founded a California Colony in Tulare County that continued for several years during the early part of the 20th century. The library is a re-creation of the original in what is now called Col. Allensworth State Historic Park.
Computer Room, Harold Washington Learning Center, Chicago, IL 2009 Computers have become essential in any library. Libraries are also among the few places people can take free classes on how to use computers and other technologies. Especially for poor people, access to free computers in libraries is necessary to function into today’s wired world.
Interior, Willard Library, Evansville, IN  2011                                                               The Willard Library was built in 1885. The Library is the oldest public library building in the state of Indiana and is housed in a spectacular Victorian building. The Willard Library has also been called the only public library that is haunted. While photographing a remote, dark corner of the interior of the library I thought I saw the ghost. But I wasn’t sure. Live GhostCams are currently watching for the Grey Lady at
Super Bingo, Family Dollar and Mockingbird branch library, Abilene, TX 2011.
Katrina damaged library, New Orleans, LA 2008                                               When the levees broke, all of New Orleans’ thirteen public libraries were damaged, eight so badly they could not be reopened. More than 300,000 books, CDs, and other items were destroyed—nearly half the collection. With the devastation of the city and the crippling of city government, NOPL was forced to lay off 90 percent of its employees. All libraries were closed for over two months. The 19 remaining staff members, when they were able to re-enter the city, began surveying damage and salvaging assets. The devastation was an opportunity to rebuild a better library system.
Library, Roscoe, SD 2012                                  The library was built in 1932 in the small town of Roscoe, ND by a group of civic-minded women called the Priscilla Embroidery Club.  The land for the library was donated and the women hauled the rocks for the chimney and foundation while their husbands constructed the building. The eight women of the club took turns being the librarian and maintaining the yard and building. Books were bought by the clubwomen but many books were donated by people in the community. Approximately 1,500 books were in the library when it closed in 2002. The aging members of the Priscilla Club were no longer able to maintain and operate the library. This 12 by 14 foot building was considered one of the smallest public libraries in the nation.
Library, Death Valley National Park, CA 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 of the hottest place on earth.
Reading Room, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, New York Public Library, New York, NY 2008 Often referred to as the “main branch”, this Beau-Arts landmark was initially formed from the consolidation of the Astor and Lenox Libraries, and has evolved into one of the world’s preeminent public libraries. It houses some 15 million items including priceless medieval manuscripts, maps, contemporary novels and poetry, as well as baseball cards, dime novels, and comic books. More than 1,200 languages and dialects, ancient and modern, are represented in the collections. It is representative of the rich diversity of the city that built it.
Sculpture, cliffs and Springdale Branch Library, Springdale, UT 2012.
Head of books sculpture, Main Library, Salt Lake City, UT 2010              This hanging public art piece entitled "Psyche" consists of nearly 1500 small sculptures of books and butterflies.
Civil War mural, Pollard Memorial Library, Lowell, MA 2011                    The library contains a stunning collection of artifacts including a series of murals depicting scenes from the Civil War. The local writer Jack Kerouac frequently used this library.
Librarians, Tool Lending Library, Berkeley Public Library, Berkeley, CA 2011 The Tool Lending Library is open to all Berkeley residents and homeowners and currently houses 2500+ tools.
Rifle training class, West Wendover, NV (diptych) 2010                                             When I arrived at this desert library I noticed a sign saying it was closed because of a class being held inside. I set up my camera outside to take this photograph when the class of children carrying rifles emerged from the library and formed a line facing West Wendover’s casinos and dry, rugged mountains.
Adult literacy class, Potrero Hill Branch Library, San Francisco, CA 1994.
Yosemite Valley Branch Library, Yosemite National Park, CA.
Library, Weeping Water, NE 2012                    This library was originally built as a church before becoming a public library. The old limestone rock walls exuded rust colored stains that made the closed library look like it was weeping blood.
Peninsula Branch Library. Queens Bookmobile parked in front of library, Rockaways, NY, NY 2012. After Hurricane Sandy the entire flooded contents of library were moved to dumpster shown on left.
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