Partner Schools
Print Archive
Peer Review


Partner News
Peer Reviewed
Poetry & Fiction


Cities + Places
Design History
Design Practice
Film + Video
Health + Safety
Politics + Policy
Public + Private

Design Observer

Job Board

Gallery: Robert Dawson & Josh Wallaert

Public Library: An American Commons

These are brutal times for public libraries. Two years ago they froze book purchases. Last year they cut staff and reduced service hours, spreading the pain among branches in rolling blackouts. This year they are on the chopping block again, and there is nothing to cut but bone. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed budget includes an 8 percent cut to library funding. The Houston Public Library is trying to make sense of a nearly 30 percent cut. Two weeks ago the library board in Gary, Indiana, voted to close the main library; it was either that or lose all four satellite branches.

What’s at stake here is more than access to a room full of books. The modern American public library is reading room, book lender, video rental outlet, internet café, town hall, concert venue, youth activity center, research archive, history museum, art gallery, homeless day shelter, office suite, coffeeshop, seniors’ clubhouse and romantic hideaway rolled into one. [1] In small towns of the American West, it is also the post office and the backdrop of the local gun range. These are functions that the digital public libraries of the future will never be able to recreate.

Since 1994, Robert Dawson has surveyed hundreds of the more than 17,000 public libraries in the United States. The photographs presented here, drawn from a current exhibition at the San Francisco Public Library, capture a broad range of American experience, from the Tulare County Free Library built by farmers in the self-governed black township of Allensworth, California, to a New Orleans library damaged by Hurricane Katrina, tagged with the X-Code of an Urban Search and Rescue Team. Dawson’s photographs make the case for the public library as an American Commons, perhaps the greatest we’ve ever had.

— Josh Wallaert

Editors' Note

Public Library: An American Commons
will be on view in the San Francisco Main Library, Jewett Gallery, April 9 – June 12, 2011. Related events include an artist talk on April 12; a gallery walkthrough with Robert Dawson and curator Ellen Manchester on May 7; “From Carnegie to Koolhaas,” an artist talk focusing on library architecture on May 14; and a panel discussion with San Francisco architects on the architecture and design of San Francisco branch libraries, including LEED and sustainable design, on May 18.


1. My romantic perspective may be skewed, as I got engaged at the Minneapolis Public Library; although I note in my defense that I had the good sense to propose at the joyful Central Library designed by Cesar Pelli, rather than at the neighborhood bunker, the Walker branch.
Share This Story


What the Map Cuts Up

Above Grade: On the High Line

This Is Flint, Michigan

Cotton Farmers

The Social Project

RSSSubscribe to Comment Feed

Comments (10)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

I read an article where a consultant looked carefully at how a certain library in a certain locality was being used and came to the conclusion that for many, it was a place to come use the computers for a multitude of reasons, pick up books on hold, etc. The conclusion was that maybe libraries should not hold books on shelves since they take up valuable space. People could order their books via the inter library loan and pick them up at a kiosk. Begin a former librarian, the purpose of books on a shelf gives the browser time to browse many books on a certain subject, one that you do not get on the internet. I would gladly pay extra for using a library. For example, if you live out of the city of E. Lansing, MI., you pay a yearly fee for the use of the resources about $25.00/year!
elizabeth shipley
04.13.11 at 11:55

The view of the room in the Fairhaven, Mass. library is stunning!

I frequent my NYC branch library. My toddler and I enjoy the children's floor.
04.13.11 at 06:08

You are sooo correct ... Libraries are in danger these days ... Such a shame !!!!
Miroslav Svestka
04.13.11 at 08:43

Among those many functions, list public restroom. Often the only one a stranger in town can find.
Doug Hill
04.14.11 at 05:00

Thanks so much for sharing this wonderful photographic exhibit about the role the public library plays Mr. Dawson. Here in Minneapolis, we have several large regional branch libraries. They serve as community centers for author signings and talks and also provide meeting space for many community organizations. A fascinating newer service is homework help where subject experts help students with anything from reading and english to math and physics assignments. Even these larger libraries have had their hours cut back. For example, our Southdale regional library is only open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and from 12-5 on Sundays. Students and families could certainly use longer hours for study, research, and using that libraries wonderful printed, video, audio, and computer resources during longer hours. It's too bad that cities like Houston are cutting back their library budget by 30 percent this year. We are not struggling like that yet, but who knows what will happen even to the employment centers at many libraries if the economy does not improve.
Frank Elliott
04.14.11 at 06:20

Here's an innovative concept that the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh came up with in partnership with the new Pittsburgh Public Market - both community gathering places. The Carnegie Library system is suffering funding shortages and making many cutbacks. This plan will bring many of the services of the library to the community at a minimal cost and also provides those services during the weekends when many of the community branches are closed. The Market is located in the Strip District which is Pittsburgh's Historic Market District.
Cynthia Helffrich
04.15.11 at 11:35

The introduction of incredible innovations regarding electronics is welcomed throughout the earth. Most of the products offer a person easier access to something or a splendid shining new perspective towards a cone complicated situation. However, just as it is a frightening prospect to envision food shelves empty throughout this magnificent country, what of shelves serving as temporary homes to books?

Without the proper nutrition the human body suffers and decays. Food for the mind is parallel to that of the physical realm. Libraries contain life sustaining ingredients. Encompassing this little world with all its contents, they can take even humans to the heavens cost free via pages.

Why, ever, would we as a people allow that infinite amount of sustenance to be smothered? Our lives shall surely shrivel in more ways than one if libraries are not preserved and protected. Try finding any place where you'll encounter items with what we can only describe as an extremely enviable shelf life. Life being the lingering word...
04.15.11 at 04:15

Wonderful photographs! It's very telling that in many communities the library is just a trailer-sized building (or an actual trailer!), but is very important to that community. Many are beautiful architectural marvels. Alameda's Carnegie Library has been converted to an administrative building because the collection no longer fit, but I still love that building. No matter how modest or how grand, all of these libraries are both crucially important and gravely endangered. The erosion of every common societal resource at the hands of the rapacious rich is typified by the library, often the only commons in a town.
Nils Ohlson
06.10.11 at 06:07

Mark Twain is smiling on you Bob. Without a Library or Camera Obscura, I don't think I would have understood the world at all.
Susannah Hays
06.10.11 at 11:32

Thanks for this great post on this great project. Dawson is now doing a cross country road trip to finish up the project. He's blogging about it at
Manjula M.
06.28.11 at 07:15

Don't have an account? Create an account. Forgot your password? Click here.



Donate to Places: Your Support Makes Our Work Possible


A portfolio of images of American libraries by photographer Robert Dawson.
View Slideshow >>


Josh Wallaert is the associate editor of Places. He lives in San Francisco.
More Bio >>

Robert Dawson is founder and co-director of the Water in the West Project and an Instructor of Photography at San Jose State University and Stanford University.
More Bio >>