Walking into my local branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, it looks more or less like any other: computers to the left, children’s section to the right, non-fiction dead ahead. It’s only when I go upstairs to the already small fiction section that I see something abnormal: more shelves are empty than full. That this state of affairs exists in a borough known as a haven for writers makes it a troubling omen.
Such austerity is the lot of public libraries in a weak economy. Libraries are often treated as inessential, especially given the increasingly prevalent belief that books are a dying medium. But the vast majority of Americans still believe in the importance of libraries: in a Pew poll, 90% of respondents stated that the closing of the local public library would affect their community, and 95% agreed that “the materials and resources available at public libraries play an important role in giving everyone a chance to succeed.” Women, African Americans, and members of the lowest income brackets were even more likely to believe that library services are vital. In New York, public outcry helped avert budget cuts that would have devastated the entire Queens Library system and contributed to the scrapping of an unpopular plan to remove many of the books from the flagship branch of the New York Public Library system. Yet whether libraries can survive austerity budgeting and a new media landscape — not to mention what form that survival will take — remains an open question.
Into this embattled landscape, photographer Robert Dawson has released The Public Library: A Photographic Essay, a record of his 18-year project photographing public libraries all over the United States. In addition to hundreds of images, the book includes essays on the importance and relevance of libraries from authors, librarians, and activists.
The Public Library draws on the traditions of the 20th century’s great photographic surveys. Dawson has adopted a single-minded focus on a particular subject, as with Bernd and Hilla Becher’s water towers, though he forgoes their standardized style. From the Farm Security Administration surveys of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, Dawson has inherited a concern for the marginalized members of American society and a desire to capture those lesser-seen aspects of the American experience.
In order to express the breadth of roles the public library plays in America life, Dawson embarked on two long road trips, covering a total of 21,000 miles from California to New England. He photographed the country’s oldest public library, a tool lending library, a library located in a trailer and one in a strip mall, a birdhouse-sized library run on the honor system, and a number of libraries that have since closed. The sheer volume and range of places Dawson has visited and images he’s collected is impressive; through the mass of photographs, the library becomes a connecting thread across divisions of region, class, and culture.
These divisions nonetheless make themselves felt in the aesthetics of these public spaces. The photographs showcase the contrasts between the majestic flagships of urban library systems and the simple one-room libraries in impoverished rural areas. Even among the larger libraries, there’s a huge difference between the glass-heavy design of Seattle’s new institution, which feels as much like a greenhouse as a library, and the imposing, iconic reading room of the NYPL’s Schwarzman building. In general, the western libraries seem designed to accentuate their natural surroundings (the main branch Salt Lake City library has massive windows with a view of the Wasatch Mountains; the Mill Valley library is built around a few huge redwoods), while the eastern ones tend towards grander, more old-fashioned styles, even when they’re relatively new (Chicago’s Harold Washington Library opened in 1991, but its interior is mostly polished marble).
For Dawson, no matter how diverse these spaces may be, they all represent “a shared commons of our ambitions, our dreams, our memories, our cultures, and ourselves.” The public library, he argues, is a vital public space, essential to maintaining a healthy democracy. Unfortunately, the photographs themselves don’t always live up to this ideal.
The images of visually appealing locations are striking, but Dawson fails to represent many of the more banal vistas in equally engaging ways — for example, many of the interiors are shot in low-contrast black and white, robbing them of any drama. As a whole, the book feels more like documentation, or even propaganda, than art. And yet, in an environment where even the most beloved libraries are endangered, perhaps a little propaganda is exactly what we need.