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An American Commons: Photographic Study Celebrates Public Libraries

  • "Smallest library, now closed, Hartland Four Corners, VT 1994"  is part of  the book "The Public Library" by photographer Robert Dawson.

    "Smallest library, now closed, Hartland Four Corners, VT 1994" is part of the book "The Public Library" by photographer Robert Dawson.

  • "First tax-supported Public Library, Peterborough Town Library,  Peterborough, NH  2009"  is part of  the book "The Public Library" by photographer Robert Dawson.

    "First tax-supported Public Library, Peterborough Town Library, Peterborough, NH 2009" is part of the book "The Public Library" by photographer Robert Dawson.

  • "Athenaeum Library, St. Johnsbury, VT 2001"  is part of  the book "The Public Library" by photographer Robert Dawson.

    "Athenaeum Library, St. Johnsbury, VT 2001" is part of the book "The Public Library" by photographer Robert Dawson.

  • "Super Bingo, Family Dollar and Mockingbird branch library, Abilene, TX 2011" is part of  the book "The Public Library" by photographer Robert Dawson.

    "Super Bingo, Family Dollar and Mockingbird branch library, Abilene, TX 2011" is part of the book "The Public Library" by photographer Robert Dawson.

  • "Vershire Community Library, Hostel and Vermont Shop, Vershire, VT 2009" is part of  the book "The Public Library" by photographer Robert Dawson.

    "Vershire Community Library, Hostel and Vermont Shop, Vershire, VT 2009" is part of the book "The Public Library" by photographer Robert Dawson.

  • "Smallest library, now closed, Hartland Four Corners, VT 1994"  is part of  the book "The Public Library" by photographer Robert Dawson.
  • "First tax-supported Public Library, Peterborough Town Library,  Peterborough, NH  2009"  is part of  the book "The Public Library" by photographer Robert Dawson.
  • "Athenaeum Library, St. Johnsbury, VT 2001"  is part of  the book "The Public Library" by photographer Robert Dawson.
  • "Super Bingo, Family Dollar and Mockingbird branch library, Abilene, TX 2011" is part of  the book "The Public Library" by photographer Robert Dawson.
  • "Vershire Community Library, Hostel and Vermont Shop, Vershire, VT 2009" is part of  the book "The Public Library" by photographer Robert Dawson.

The Public Library: A Photographic Essay, by Robert Dawson, Princeton Architectural Press, 192 pages, $35

Long before I could define philanthropist, I held Andrew Carnegie in the highest esteem. When I asked, at 10, why “Carnegie” was carved into the stone over the pillared portico of the Solvay Public Library in my upstate New York home town, I was awe-struck and grateful at this revelation: a wealthy man from far away gave us this place of wonder.

Those who remember their own reverence for a treasured library will find themselves in good company in The Public Library, a fascinating new collection of photographs by San Francisco-based documentary photographer Robert Dawson. His library photographs, an 18-year project, are accompanied by reflections from literary luminaries Ann Patchett, Amy Tan, Barbara Kingsolver and Anne Lamott, and essays, verse and letters from Dr Seuss, Philip Levine, Charles Simic and others. Their voices, together with Dawson’s detailed captions, provide a narrative pull to this moving photographic survey. The author, a frequent visitor to the Upper Valley, will talk about his project at the Howe Library in Hanover at 7 pm on July 22.

In the book’s foreword, Bill Moyers recalls the public library of his childhood as “a mecca for poor kids like me.” There, he says, “I entered a boundless world to discover more lives to lead than I had dreamed of....” Dawson takes up the themes of hope and opportunity in the book’s introduction, with references to “poor kids” Isaac Asimov, to whom the public library was “an open door to wonder and achievement,” and Malcolm X, who “used the library as a place to escape and to discover a wider world.”

Dawson and a chorus of others plead the case that the nation’s public library system is a cornerstone of our democracy, a great leveler, part of the same democratic experiment in which public education took root and bloomed. “A locally governed, tax-supported system that dispenses knowledge and information for everyone throughout the country at no cost to its patrons is an astonishing thing,” Dawson writes.

Dawson’s library project, which he started during his travels around the country, crystallized three years ago, when he and son Walker spent the summer months driving 21,000 miles through 41 states to broaden the scope of Dawson’s library photographs.

Geography is destiny in a public system that relies on taxpayer and community support; he wanted to see how public libraries were faring in places he had not happened to visit. The route, researched by the younger Dawson, was designed to encompass public libraries in the full range of communities in the U.S. at this moment in history — the richest and poorest, the most literate and the least, those with the highest proportion of African Americans, Latinos, American Indians.

The summers of 2011 and 2012, as another 300 photographs were added to Dawson’s body of work, reinforced his belief that the nation’s public libraries were “a vibrant, essential but threatened system.” At risk in communities all over the country, he argues, is the public sphere itself.

The photographs chosen to illustrate this concern reflect the mastery of an artist whose images are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress, and who has been recognized with fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment For the Arts, and with a Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize.

Dawson has long been interested in using photography to explore and chronicle “the things that bind us together as a culture.” Most recently he and his wife, Ellen Manchester, co-directed a large-scale collaboration with several other photographers to document cultural values and attitudes around Water in the West.

In The Public Library, he documents the role of libraries as an “American Commons.” Dawson traces the evolution from the nation’s first tax-supported library — founded in 1833 in Peterborough, N.H. — to today’s network of publicly financed, community-owned libraries.

The first image in the book is the reading room in the main branch of the New York City library, with its chandeliers, elaborately carved reading tables and Beaux Arts ceiling. The caption describes the library’s preeminent collection of 15 million items in 12 languages and dialects as “emblematic of the rich diversity of the city that built it.”

“Rich diversity” is an apt description of Dawson’s survey. There is the image of a one-room free library in Allensworth, Calif., built by ex-slaves, and the ornate dome glowing in the ceiling of the three-story, block-long Central Library in Milwaukee, Wisc. Photographs of Carnegie libraries reflect the era of Carnegie’s philanthropy and the aspirations of their communities. (The Greek revival architecture of the Solvay Library in my factory town aspired to the Acropolis.) There are images of libraries that lend tools and seeds and libraries in structures that once housed a jail, a bank, a fire department, the Odd Fellows Hall. There are libraries that are multi-purposed — library-cum-post office, hostel or, in the case of the Haskell Free Library on the U.S.-Canadian border, Opera House. Although security has been tightened in Derby Line, Vt., and Stanstead, Quebec, which form a single village that straddles the border, patrons of Haskell Free Library can still enter from Vermont and check out books in Quebec.

Images are presented in striking juxtapositions, including some taken during Dawson’s vacations in the Upper Valley. A 2009 photograph of the “nation’s smallest library,” assembled in Hartland Four Corners in 1944 out of two rooms from a sawmill office, sits across from the angled, mirrored matrix of Central Library in Seattle, an 11-story glass-and-steel building that opened in 2004. (The tiny Hartland library, deemed structurally unsound, has since been demolished.)

A 1994 pre-renovation photo of the Canaan Town Library and Town Hall, its stark New England lines punctuated by a front-door pediment and 32-paned windows, is across from the Rico Public Library, whose arched windows look out from dormers and towers on a Colorado town with a population of 205.

The role of the library in times of crisis is captured in an image of the corrugated-box “temporary library” in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, across from the lemon yellow mobile library in Rockaway Queens after Hurricane Sandy. That the public library provides an essential community service for those who endure chronic crisis is movingly argued by librarian Dorothy Lazard, who describes her role in serving the homeless and untreated ill in Oakland, Calif., where the public library is shelter for a population of mentally ill residents that outstrips the capacities of existing facilities and services.

Overall, the public library system is seeing the highest patronage and largest circulation of materials in more than a decade as libraries evolve to meet expanding community needs. Public libraries across the U.S. provide an Internet connection for those without other access, a critical need for those of limited means. They offer workshops on financial management, filmmaking for teens, strengthening memory skills for seniors. They offer computer skills classes in Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Spanish and Russian. They host concerts, art exhibits and yoga classes, connect patrons to social services, provide assistance to job seekers and identify resources for victims of domestic abuse.

Dawson and his chorus of essayists acknowledge this dynamic evolution with a cautionary message: In an era of unprecedented income and wealth inequality, when spending on the nation’s roads, bridges and highways is deferred “while we argue about the role of government,” public libraries are often the first public infrastructure to suffer severe cutbacks in funding. In urban areas such as Detroit and Denver, library hours and services have been curtailed, branches closed. This is happening, as well, in smaller towns all over the country and particularly in poor rural communities. The saddest images in the book are those libraries that have been abandoned, neglected and closed.

“Public libraries are worth fighting for,” Dawson says, “and this book is my way of fighting.”

In this beautiful, moving and powerful collection Dawson shows us exactly what is at stake.

Hanover resident Nancy Serrell is director of science and technology outreach at Dartmouth College and a bibliophile.