October 26, 2015 Library of Congress Acquires Robert Dawson's Images of Public Libraries

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The Library of Congress has acquired 681 photographs from “The Public Library: An American Commons,” a photographic survey by Robert Dawson of public libraries in the United States. The photographs significantly expand the Library’s holdings that describe the American public library—as architecture, community spaces and a reflection of the contemporary social landscape.

“Robert Dawson’s extensive survey provided the perfect opportunity for the Library of Congress to represent the public library’s role in the 21st century. His photographs also offer a fascinating comparison to our interior and exterior views of libraries newly built at the start of the 20th century,” said Helena Zinkham, director for Collections and Services at the Library of Congress.

The Dawson collection is the largest acquisition of library photography by the Library of Congress since the early 1900s.

From 1994 to 2015, Dawson photographed 526 of the 16,536 public libraries in 48 states and the District of Columbia, often traveling more than 11,000 miles at a time on summer “road trips” with his son Walker Dawson. The images provide documentation of the wide range of architecture of public libraries in America, from those on small-town streets, in shopping malls, on Indian reservations, in national parks and in large cities. The photographs show the role of public libraries, not only as a source for information and knowledge but also as a public commons.

The Library of Congress acquired the collection via purchase/gift from Dawson and includes all his negatives, scans, field notes, correspondence, maps and other records from the 21-year photography project. The archive contains 25 exhibition prints (16-inch by 20-inch) from large-format negatives and 656 prints (8-inch by 10-inch) from both large format negatives as well as digital files. The collection is available for viewing by appointment and will be digitized and available online through the Library of Congress website.

The public library archive is a significant addition to the 280 photographs by Dawson previously acquired by the Library of Congress from “The Truckee River/Pyramid Lake (Nevada) Project,” www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010649841/.

As Dawson travelled the country to photograph public libraries, he witnessed many changes, such as library closings, temporary facilities which became permanent and the coming of the digital age of computers and the Internet. Dawson’s work has been influenced by the photographers of the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s-1940s and, more recently, by the photographic surveys funded by the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1970s.

According to Bill Moyers, who wrote the foreword to Dawson’s book “The Public Library: A Photographic Essay,” Dawson’s collection of photographs comes at a propitious time: “When the library is being reinvented in response to the explosion of information and knowledge, promiscuous budget cuts in the name of austerity, new technology and changing needs . . . Dawson shows us . . . what is at stake—when the library is open, no matter its size or shape, democracy is open, too.”

Dawson said, “I am thrilled and honored to have the Library of Congress collect this archive. . . This survey is really a contemporary portrait of our country through the lens of the local public library. In a culture that is increasingly privatized, libraries are among the last free place we have. Public libraries are worth fighting for, and this work is my way of fighting.”

The Library of Congress has digitized many of its images of public libraries from the early 1900s. They can be seen here: go.usa.gov/3SE5R.

The Library’s Prints and Photographs Division holds more than 15 million photographs, drawings and prints from the 15th century to the present day. International in scope, these visual collections represent a uniquely rich array of human experience, knowledge, creativity and achievement, touching on almost every realm of endeavor: science, art, invention, government and political struggle, and the recording of history. For more information, visit www.loc.gov/rr/print/.

The Library of Congress, the nation’s first-established federal cultural institution and the largest library in the world, holds more than 160 million items in various languages, disciplines and formats. The Library serves the U.S. Congress and the nation both on-site in its reading rooms on Capitol Hill and through its award-winning website at www.loc.gov.


PR 15-190
ISSN 0731-3527