America’s Public Libraries



A photo essay for National Library Week.

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 twenty-six 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 x 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.

PublicLibrary_Cover_4In the summer of 2012 Walker accompanied me again as we spent four weeks driving more than 10,000 miles to fifteen 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 x 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.

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’s photographs have been recognized by a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and by a Dorothea Lange–Paul Taylor Prize. He has been an instructor of photography at San Jose State University since 1986 and at Stanford University since 1996.

A version of this essay appears as the introduction to The Public Library: A Photographic Essay. Copyright © 2014 Robert Dawson; reprinted with the permission of Princeton Architectural Press.