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The Public Library

A Photographic Essay

Dawson, Robert

Available for the Kindle at

     8 × 9 in (20.3 × 22.9 cm)
192 pages
100 color illustrations, 75 b/w illustrations
Imprint: PAPress
Publication date: 03/15/2014
Rights: World
ISBN: 9781616892173

Many of us have vivid recollections of childhood visits to a public library: the unmistakable musty scent, the excitement of checking out a stack of newly discovered books. Today, the more than 17,000 libraries in America also function as de facto community centers offering free access to the internet, job-hunting assistance, or a warm place to take shelter. And yet, across the country, cities large and small are closing public libraries or curtailing their hours of operation. Over the last eighteen years, photographer Robert Dawson has crisscrossed the country documenting hundreds of these endangered institutions. The Public Library presents a wide selection of Dawson's photographs, from the majestic reading room at the New York Public Library to Allensworth, California's one-room Tulare County Free Library built by former slaves. Accompanying Dawson's revealing photographs are essays, letters, and poetry by some of America's most celebrated writers. A foreword by Bill Moyers and an afterword by Ann Patchett bookend this important survey of a treasured American institution.
  • Features an impressive list of contributors, including Bill Moyers, Ann Patchett, Barbara Kingsolver, Amy Tan, Ann Lamott, E. B. White, Isaac Asimov, Dr. Seuss, Pulitzer-Prize winners Charles Simic and Philip Levine, and Luis Herrera, Library Journal's 2012 Librarian of the Year
  • The most comprehensive visual survey of American libraries ever published
  • Includes libraries from all over the country, including the unconventional Berkeley, California tool-lending library and the first Little Free Library

Robert Dawson's photographs have been recognized by a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize. He is an instructor of photography at San Jose State University and Stanford University.

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker's Page Turner blog:

"Dawson's project makes a powerful case for how public libraries serve communities in every corner of the country."

The Art Blog:

"" ... a wonderful example of citizen-archiving ... .[the] book trumpets its library love with straightforward joy and ownership, like a volunteer marching band playing a Sousa march in your neighborhood Fourth of July parade""


"An intriguing glimpse at an oft-overlooked representation of democracy that exists in nearly every town."

Brain Pickings:

""The Public Library is absolutely wonderful in its entirety, at once an ode to the glory of our most democratic institutions and a culturally necessary prompt to defend them like we would defend our freedom to live, learn, and be---a freedom to which the library is our highest celebration.""

""Every architect interested in public library design---and if you aren't, shame on you!---should own this meticulously executed photo album of public libraries encompassing styles and areas across the U.S. Robert Dawson's The Public Library: A Photographic Essay, a product of an 18-year odyssey crisscrossing the country capturing captivating images of book spaces, is clearly a labor of love.""

The San Jose Mercury News:

""With dozens of color photographs, a foreword by Bill Moyers, and essays, letters, and poems by Barbara Kingsolver, Amy Tan, Isaac Asimov, E.B. White and others, the book is an informative tribute to the value of libraries in our ever-changing society.""

Azure magazine :

"An inspiring reminder that architecture is the stuff communities are made of. "

Christian Science Moniter:

""For book lovers, library denizens, and fans of architecture or Americana, The Public Library is a delight. -""


""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.""

The Boston Globe:

""Robert Dawson took road trips all over the country for The Public Library: A Photographic Essay. Ann Patchett and other writers share childhood memories about their local libraries, but Dawson's images are the main show and a wealth of stories are embedded in his captions.""

Library Journal:

""A book for anyone with a deep and abiding love of libraries ... Dawson's latest project is a powerful argument for the continued relevance of our public libraries as information and community centers, even as libraries adapt to changing technological and budgetary landscapes. ""

Seattle Pi:

""It is being billed as the most comprehensive visual survey of American libraries ever published...Aside from the powerful images the book features contributions by the likes of Bill Moyers, Ann Patchett, Barbara Kingsolver, Amy Tan, E. B. White, Isaac Asimov, and Dr. Seuss among others.""

Publishers Weekly:

""This beautifully crafted book celebrates public libraries across the U.S. in both color and black and white images captured by photographer Dawson over an 18-year period. Artfully arranged in such chapters as 'Civic Memory and Identity' and 'Literature and Learning,' the book includes a foreword by Bill Moyers and an afterword by Ann Patchett ... . Dawson goes beyond the physical structures and touches on how viscerally and nostalgically Americans feel about public libraries, and suggests that, as a culture, we depend on them more than we know. ""

The LA Times:

""Includes a call for more support of libraries, not only as symbols of democracy but as great equalizers, tools of social justice to lift the poor and to provide equal opportunity.""

Design Taxi:

""Rich with history and significance, they read as a love letter to the public library, a beloved institution that is under threat from closure due to budget cuts and curtailed operating hours. ""


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