In 1994, photographer Robert Dawson began an odds-and-ends project. Whenever he traveled, he’d take pictures of public libraries. Then, a handful of years ago, he started taking trips across the United States just for the libraries–like the shed that served a one-person county in Nebraska, or the Texas library that housed a “petroleum room” with all sorts of George Bush-themed collectibles. He documented everything from a library found in a suburban strip mall to the the air-conditioned institution that functioned more like a refugee camp in sweltering Detroit July.
All told, Dawson journeyed through 48 states, fascinated and inspired by the common role libraries played in society. Libraries, he found, didn’t only serve as a refuge for the poor who didn’t have any place else to go, but gateways that opened up all corners of the world to anyone inquisitive enough to take a stroll among the shelves.
“People have various opinions about the government,” he says. “But even if they didn’t like the government, they did like their public library.”
To Dawson, public libraries negotiate the outside world’s vast disparities in income and access to opportunity. His recently published book, Public Library: An American Commons, which compiles hundreds of images of libraries across the country, includes essays from writers who feel similarly; Dr. Seuss, Bill Moyers, Ann Patchett, and Charles Simic are just a few.
Much of Dawson’s work also captures decay, the tragedy of poorly prioritized library systems. But a recent Pew study found that libraries aren’t going anywhere. Some 90% of Americans over 16 years old say closing their local library would affect their communities.
“One of the things that was universal throughout this project is that libraries are appreciated on all levels throughout this society, not just the big cities or the wealthy communities,” Dawson said. “I saw using the library as the beginning of a conversation about the things that we shared, the things that we valued. I think it’s a good place to start.”