Stanford photography instructor’s work in national spotlight

Entrance, Rainbow Branch Library, Las Vegas.
Entrance, Rainbow Branch Library, Las Vegas.

ROBERT DAWSON, instructor of photography in the Department of Art & Art History, spent 21 years photographing public libraries across the United States.

Now, his photos will get a national spotlight.

The Library of Congress recently announced the acquisition of Dawson’s entire archive from the project “Public Library: An American Commons.” The archive, acquired through a purchase, includes 681 prints, and all of his negatives, field notes and maps from the project.

From 1994 to 2015, Dawson photographed hundreds of libraries in 48 states from the world’s first tax-supported public library in Peterborough, New Hampshire, to a library in a trailer in Death Valley National Park, often traveling more than 11,000 miles at a time on summer road trips with his son. He was awarded two prestigious grants during the project in addition to a 2014 Guggenheim Fellowship in recognition of his work.

Last year, Princeton Architectural Press published Dawson’s work in the book The Public Library: A Photographic Essay, with an essay by BILL MOYERS and an afterword by ANN PATCHETT. The book is a small sample of the total number of libraries that Dawson photographed, but represents the wide range of geographic, cultural, socio-economic, literary, ethnic and architectural diversity of public libraries throughout the United States.

The Library of Congress asked to acquire at least one image from each of the 526 public libraries that Dawson photographed.

In learning about the acquisition, Dawson said, “I am thrilled and honored to have the Library of Congress collect this archive – to have my work in the greatest expression of the public commons, the national library of our country. In preparing the photographs to be housed in such an important public archive, I had the opportunity to reflect on the 21-year project, and to discover images and ideas that had been somewhat buried in the passage of time. This survey is really a contemporary portrait of our country through the lens of the local public library.”

He added, “In a culture that is increasingly privatized, libraries are among the last free places we have. Public libraries are worth fighting for, and this work is my way of fighting.”

A Library of Congress press release noted that 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. ”

HELENA ZINKHAM, director for collections and services at the Library of Congress, said, “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.”

Many of Dawson’s photographs from the library project were included in his one-person exhibition, Public Discourse: Photographs by Robert Dawson, presented at the Stanford Art Gallery in 2013.