Photographer Robert Dawson has been aiming his cameras at public libraries for 18 years, capturing exterior and interior images to show the role of libraries in their communities and the nation. His project began slowly, as he photographed libraries while traveling on other assignments. Then in 2011 and 2012, he and his son Walker took cross-country trips specifically to visit libraries, often two or three a day. From thousands of photos, Dawson assembled a representative collection in The Public Library: A Photographic Essay.
The Public Library is not just a pretty book of pictures, though many photos celebrate the art and architecture of public buildings serving as libraries. The book serves as an introductory history of American public libraries and as a state of the institution report. In his captions and in essays collected from well-known writers, such as Bill Moyers, Ann Patchett, Barbara Kingsolver, Isaac Asimov, and Dr. Seuss, Dawson poses that our nation would not be so diverse and strong nor so rich if we had not had public libraries. Libraries have been essential in educating and inspiring individuals who have built the country, and they continue to be needed as the gap between haves and have-nots widens.
Dawson's book will not please everyone. Sometimes he aimed at the weather-beaten backs or windowless sides of beleaguered libraries; sometimes he shows abandoned buildings. I can imagine there are a few librarians and trustees who rue that he did not show their libraries more positively. I only hope that they see he is making the case that libraries (including theirs) need support to continue.
Every public library can benefit from having this book for their readers, staff, and trustees. I'd like every political leader to read it. Dawson's The Public Library is an important contribution to our effort to support the cause of libraries.
Dawson, Robert. The Public Library: A Photographic Essay. Princeton Architectural Press, 2014. 191p. ISBN 9781616892173.