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The Public Library: A Photographic Essay

The Public Library: A Photographic Essay by Robert Dawson

"Robert Dawson's work is an irrefutable argument for the preservation of public libraries. His book is profound and heartbreakingly beautiful - Toni Morrison

Published by Princeton Architectural Press in April, 2014. It contain 150 photographs by Robert Dawson and fifteen essays including an introduction by Bill Moyers and an afterword by Ann Patchett
Art Practice
April, 2014


This book is a photographic survey of public libraries throughout the United States. There are almost 17,000 public libraries in this country. Since I began the project in 1994 I have photographed hundreds of libraries in forty-eight states. From Alaska to Florida and from New England to California the photographs show a vibrant, essential yet threatened system.

The modern library in the computer age is in the midst of reinventing itself. What belongs in a library? In what form do we want to preserve information and culture? More books are being published than ever before yet library budgets are shrinking. More is also being demanded of our libraries as they move beyond being centers for books to becoming centers for community.  People without homes often find libraries to be one of the few safe places as homeless shelters are cut back. Access to the Internet is increasingly necessary to function in our society and many people have only the library to connect to the web. According to the American Library Association there are more people using libraries today than ever in our history.

Libraries are local but I chose to view this astonishing system as a whole. While each library has its own unique set of needs the nation-wide system of local libraries constitutes an important part of a healthy society. In the nineteenth century there was a strong correlation between the public library movement and the movement for public education. People understood that the future of democracy is contingent on an educated citizenry. They also felt that every citizen should have the right of free access to community-owned resources. These ideas coalesced into today’s public libraries which function as a system of non-commercial centers that help us define what we value and what we share.

The book was published by Princeton Architectural Press in April, 2014. It contains 150 of my photographs from the project along with fifteen essays including an introduction by Bill Moyers and an afterword by Ann Patchett.













































Awards, Festivals, and Screenings


- Guggenheim Fellowship, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, New York, NY, 2014

- Artists Grant, The Creative Work Fund, a program of the Walter and Elise Haas Fund supported by generous grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and The James Irving        Foundation, 2013

- Artists Grant, Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, Chicago, IL, 2013

Library built by ex-slaves, Allensworth, CA

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.

Photo by Robert Dawson 1995

Katrina damaged library, New Orleans, LA 2008                                              

When the levees broke, all of New Orleans’ thirteen public libraries were damaged, eight so badly they could not be reopened. More than 300,000 books, CDs, and other items were destroyed—nearly half the collection. With the devastation of the city and the crippling of city government, NOPL was forced to lay off 90 percent of its employees. All libraries were closed for over two months. The 19 remaining staff members, when they were able to re-enter the city, began surveying damage and salvaging assets. The devastation was an opportunity to rebuild a better library system.

Photo by Robert Dawson 2008

Athenaeum Library, St. Johnsbury, VT 2001                                                              

The painting is by the famous nineteenth-century German-American artist Alfred Bierstadt of Yosemite Valley in California.

Photo by Robert Dawson 2001

Robert Dawson photographing the main library, Detroit, MI 2011

Photo by Robert Dawson 2011