Library built by ex-slaves, Allensworth, CA.1995 The remarkable life of Allen Allensworth began as a slave in Kentucky in 1842. He later became a petty officer in the US Navy, a Baptist minister and a Chaplin in the US Army. He founded a California Colony in Tulare County that continued for several years during the early part of the 20th century. The library is a re-creation of the original in what is now called Col. Allensworth State Historic Park.

Recreation of a library built by freed slaves, Allensworth, California (1995) (photo by Robert Dawson, all images courtesy the Library of Congress)

There are over 16,000 public libraries in the United States, and although photographer Robert Dawson only visited a fraction — 526 over two decades — his series presents a diverse portrait of this community space. This week the Library of Congress announced the acquisition of 681 of Dawson’s library photographs, adding to their ongoing archive of American library documentation.

21 years of library photographs with Robert Dawson in San Francisco (click to enlarge)

Along with the photographs, the Library of Congress acquired his negatives, field notes, correspondence, maps, and other material from the project. Last year with Princeton Architectural Press, Dawson published The Public Library: A Photographic Essay (covered by Hyperallergic). From 1994 to 2015, he journeyed from coast-to-coast, crossing 48 states, turning his lens on this ubiquitous — and rapidly changing — local resource. Libraries still center around books, yet are increasingly incorporating new technology to engage the current needs and interests of their communities. His photographs capture how libraries are architecturally amorphous, from one nestled in an Abilene, Texas, strip mall alongside a Family Dollar franchise, to another in a trailer isolated in Death Valley National Park. Their only connection is that both serve as a free resource for reading and information.

“His extensive visual survey can help us understand the varied and changing roles of public libraries today, in all their different sizes and locations, from storefront rooms to grand civic spaces; from crowded book mobiles to cutting edge designs,” Helena Zinkham, Library of Congress director for collections and services, told Hyperallergic. She added that a “hundred years from now, the survey will still be a valuable mirror. The future viewers will just be looking at the images from their own frame of reference and be able to notice more than we might today, such as which kinds of buildings and services endured; which disappeared; and which were preserved as reminders of another era, of library roots.”

Dawson’s photographs focus on both the people in these spaces, and their structural details. There’s a beautiful gargoyle on the Woburn Public Library in Massachusetts, light pastels on the modern Rainbow branch library in Las Vegas, a recreation of the freed slave-built Tulare County Free Library in Allensworth, California, and the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum library in Vermont, where an oversize landscape painting by Albert Bierstadt dominates the interior.

The photographs by Dawson aren’t online as of now, however you can tour through over 100 archival images of libraries from the early 1900s that have been digitized by the Library of Congress. Together with Dawson’s photographs, they represent the enduring and fluid identity of the US public library.

Entrance, Rainbow branch library, Las Vegas, Nevada (photo by Robert Dawson)

Robert Dawson photographing the Main Library, Detroit, Michigan

Athenaeum Library, St. Johnsbury, Vermont (2001), with a painting by 19th-century German-American artist Albert Bierstadt of Yosemite Valley in California (photo by Robert Dawson)

B.S. Ricks Memorial Library, Yazoo City, Mississippi (2011), which was founded in 1838 (photo by Robert Dawson)

Computer Room, Harold Washington Learning Center, Chicago, Illinois (photo by Robert Dawson)

Gargoyle, Woburn Public Library, Woburn, Massachusetts (1994) (photo by Robert Dawson)

Library, Crested Butte, Colorado (photo by Robert Dawson)

Library, Death Valley National Park, California (photo by Robert Dawson)

Public Library and Visitors Center, Bremond, Texas (photo by Robert Dawson)

Super Bingo, Family Dollar, and Mockingbird branch library, Abilene, Texas (2011)

Read more about the acquisition of Robert Dawson’s The Public Library: An American Commons photographs at the Library of Congress

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...