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Diversity of the American Library

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Robert Dawson photographs the Main Library in Detroit, Michigan. Walker Dawson, courtesy of Robert Dawson.
Robert Dawson photographs the Main Library in
Detroit, Michigan. Walker Dawson, courtesy of Robert Dawson.

(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 Mockingbird Branch Library in Abilene, Texas, is located steps from Family Dollar and Super Bingo.
The Mockingbird Branch Library in Abilene, Texas, is located steps from Family Dollar
and Super Bingo.

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.

The Queens (New York) Library Bookmobile served area residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
The Queens (New York) Library Bookmobile served area residents in the aftermath of
Hurricane Sandy.

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 12-by-14 foot Roscoe (South Dakota) Library was one of the smallest public libraries in the nation when it closed in 2002.
The 12-by-14 foot Roscoe (South Dakota) Library was one of the smallest public libraries in the nation when it closed in 2002.

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


Comments (8)

  1. Wow — very cool collection! I love the 12-by-14 foot Roscoe photo. This collection captures an important segment of US society that usually doesn’t get much notice. Lovely work!

  2. I would like to know if there is a state by state listing of the library photographs and how do I see the ones in my state?

  3. Very Comprehensive, beautiful, diverse site. I look forward to more discovery through our Library.

  4. Magnifico comentario de las Bibliotecas de USA. Saludos.

  5. The library is always one of my go to places. At home or when traveling anywhere in the us or the world. It is a national treasure and a source of pride. It’s always been a part of my life. I’m concerned of any library closing or restriction. To date the library of Alexandria Egypt is still a symbol of our humankind. I believe we carry that torch in this country with every library we have.

  6. This project is wonderful!

  7. I am currently 68 years old but since boyhood I have always enjoyed and respected libraries. One of the high points in my life was visiting the Library of Congress in Washington which is not only a true national treasure but a world treasure as well. The world’s libraries are one of the great contributions to humankind and even in this day of electronic media and the internet they still embody a temple of learning that can be shared by all. I believe that great libraries will be still with us for a very long time to come and we should all celebrate that public connection. God bless the library.
    Howard Alexander Stafford

  8. To whom may concern!
    thanks a lot
    it is my favorite to read all emails about libraries
    like other emails have sent from Library of congress. it was useful.

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