Celebrating Libraries Everywhere – Including in the Open Air!

We’re well into National Library Week, the week that is set aside each April to celebrate the contributions of libraries and librarians (although I’ll note that in my family–composed of many librarians–we celebrate libraries and librarians every day!). What better time to browse through pictures in our collections relating to public libraries?

Two, in particular, caught my eyes. You don’t often think of enjoying the public library in the open air, but these Depression-era photographs from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information (FSA/OWI) Collection suggest just that.

Russell Lee took this photograph of a public library tent while documenting a mobile camp for migratory farm workers in Odell, Oregon in 1941.

Library tent at the FSA (Farm Security Administration) mobile camp for migratory farm workers. Odell, Oregon. The girls working in the library receive credit in the Junior Campers League for work in the library . Photo by Russell Lee, 1941 Sept. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c22565

Library tent at the FSA (Farm Security Administration) mobile camp for migratory farm workers. Odell, Oregon. The girls working in the library receive credit in the Junior Campers League for work in the library. Photo by Russell Lee, 1941 Sept. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c22565

The caption gives some clues about the young library workers, although the nature of the materials they are organizing seems less clear – magazines, perhaps?

I have even more questions about the second picture, which John Vachon took a little more than a year earlier, showing a young reader on the steps of the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, public library.

Boy reading funny paper on steps of public library, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo by John Vachon, 1940 July. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a06492

Boy reading funny paper on steps of public library, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo by John Vachon, 1940 July. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a06492

Why is the boy reading outside? Could he be waiting for the library to open, or perhaps he was not able to go in with bare feet? There’s a crumpled paper nearby—are the comics he is poring over from someone’s discarded newspaper? And what’s on the string that he’s holding?

Sometimes, the group that an image belongs to (called a “LOT”) gives some context for the photo, because the grouping represents a photographer’s assignment and gives clues about the photographer’s aims. In this case, however, the photo is in LOT 1103, a more miscellaneous gathering of photographs taken in Milwaukee over the course of a couple of years [view the description of the LOT and other images in it]. And I haven’t so far found answers in the FSA/OWI written records, where occasionally there are notes about photographs in particular LOTs.

Nevertheless, I relish both photographs for suggesting how much libraries and reading—no matter where they are enjoyed–contribute to people’s lives. Happy National Library Week!

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2 Comments

  1. Carl Fleischhauer
    April 11, 2018 at 2:24 pm

    Thanks–fun to see! With the Russell Lee photo, I am scratching my head about the lighting: how did he do that? The sun comes low from the left (early morning?) and the added source is more or less aligned with the camera lens. But very bright, could it have been a flashgun? Were there bulbs that bright? Inquiring minds . . . Best from Carl

  2. Barbara Orbach Natanson
    April 11, 2018 at 3:47 pm

    Your good eye and knowledge of photography have added to the list of questions–never a bad thing. Inquiring minds are the very best kind! Thanks.

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