Public libraries in the U.S. are at a crossroads. On one hand, they remain beloved public resources. Seventy-six percent of Americans say their libraries serve the educational needs of their community well, an April 2016 Pew survey found. But only 44 percent had actually set foot in a local library or bookmobile over the past 12 months, down nine percent from just three years earlier. On top of that, libraries are increasingly charged with being more things for more people—digital classrooms, public health centers, maker-spaces—with less and less funding to do it. For all of these reasons, they face an uncertain future.
That makes it as good a time as any to document the many faces of the American public library. Over the past 18 years, in between other projects, the San Francisco-based photographer Robert Dawson has done just that, capturing nearly 700 public libraries across 48 states.
His subjects are as diverse as the places they serve. There is a one-room “free library” shack in California’s San Joaquin Valley, then the polished marble floors of Chicago’s hangar-sized central branch. There are stately Carnegie Libraries, glassy modern edifices by Koolhaas and Safdie, strip-mall outposts, and steel-sided bookmobiles. The photographs are mainly architectural, but there are moving interior shots as well. In San Francisco, a grown woman learns to read. Visitors browse Chinese-language books in Queens. “Tool librarians” lend out hammers and clamps in Berkeley. And in towns large and small, oil-painted heroes of U.S. history peer over readers’ shoulders.
Traveling to these libraries, and their communities, was an eye-opening experience for Dawson. It drove home how essential libraries are, especially for lower-income visitors who can’t always otherwise access the educational tools—especially digital ones—that libraries provide. “They’re not just a nice add-on,” he tells CityLab. All across the U.S., libraries “are providing the basic things that have become essential to functioning in our society.”
Dawson says he was also struck by the pride and value almost everyone he met seemed to place on their libraries, no matter where they were. “I’m as cynical as anyone, but visiting these libraries, I really found that most people have more in common than not,” he says. “They go to work, work hard, love their families, and love their communities. There’s a lot that we share, and the public library is another one of those things.”
The Library of Congress seems to agree. It recently purchased a full collection of Dawson’s American public library photographs as part of its permanent archive. A book of these images, The Public Library: A Photographic Essay, was also published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2014.
Now Dawson has expanded his scope to a global scale, and has begun a six-week trip across Europe to photograph libraries there. He’s in Germany now, where newly arrived refugees are using libraries to immerse themselves in the local language and culture. “It’s a different kind of story here,” he says.