(The following is a story from the May/June 2016 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. You can read the issue in its entirety here.)
Inspired by the nation’s long history of photographic survey projects, photographer Robert Dawson decided to focus his camera on America’s public libraries at the turn of the 21st century.
“Since coming of age during the Vietnam War, I’ve always been interested in the things that help bind us … [like] the shared commons of public libraries,” said Dawson.
From 1994 to 2015, Dawson photographed 526 of the 16,536 public libraries in 48 states and the District of Columbia, often traveling more than 11,000 miles at a time on summer road trips with his son Walker Dawson. The images document the wide range of America’s public libraries in locations ranging from big cities to small towns, shopping malls to Indian reservations, and parking lots to national parks.
The Library of Congress recently acquired 681 photographic prints from Dawson’s photographic survey titled “The Public Library: An American Commons.”
“Robert Dawson’s extensive survey provided the perfect opportunity for the Library of Congress to represent the many roles of contemporary public libraries. His photographs also offer a fascinating comparison to our interior and exterior views of libraries newly built at the start of the 20th century,” said Helena Zinkham, director for Collections and Services at the Library of Congress.
As Dawson travelled the country to photograph public libraries, he witnessed many changes, such as library closings, temporary facilities that became permanent and the coming of the digital age of computers and the Internet. Dawson’s work has been influenced by the photographers of the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s-1940s and, more recently, by the photographic surveys funded by the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1970s.
According to Bill Moyers, who wrote the foreword to Dawson’s book “The Public Library: A Photographic Essay,” Dawson’s collection of photographs comes at a propitious time.”
“When the library is being reinvented in response to the explosion of information and knowledge, promiscuous budget cuts in the name of austerity, new technology and changing needs … Dawson shows us … what is at stake—when the library is open, no matter its size or shape, democracy is open, too.”
About the Collection
Robert Dawson’s Public Library Survey Collection is the largest acquisition of public library photography by the Library of Congress since the early 1900s. Dawson’s contemporary photographs significantly expand the Library’s holdings that describe the American public library—as architecture, community spaces and a reflection of the contemporary social landscape. The collection contains 25 exhibition prints (16-inch by 20-inch) from large-format negatives and 656 prints (8-inch by 10-inch) from both large format negatives as well as digital files. When the full archive is received, it will have all his negatives, scans, field notes, correspondence, maps and other records from the 21-year photography project.
The images range from the nation’s smallest library (now closed) in Harland Four Corners, Vermont, to the architecturally-acclaimed Salt Lake City (Utah) Main Library. Images include temporary libraries and bookmobiles, such as those serving residents affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.
The Public Library Survey Collection is available for viewing by appointment and will be available on the Library’s website in the future.
View more images of libraries, old and new, here.
All photos | Robert Dawson, Public Library Survey Collection, Prints and Photographs Division