PUBLIC LIBRARY: AN AMERICAN COMMONS


This project is a photographic and historical survey of public libraries throughout the United States. The resulting book, The Public Library: A PHotographic Essay was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2014. Over the last eighteen years I visited 48 states where I have documented hundreds of public libraries - some monumental and modest, from the reading room at the New York Public Library to Allensworth, California's one-room Tulare County Free Library, built by former slaves. Essays, letters and poetry by distinguished writers and librarians complete this tribute to a vibrant but threatened American institution.

As a photographer, I have committed my life's work to examining "the commons" - the things that we share as a nation - our infrastructure, our culture - the things that keep our society civil and working. For communities across the country, libraries offer free access to informatioin and education, a sanctuary, and hope for the future. They are some of the few non-commercial, non-religious public spaces that we have left.

Libraries are local but I chose to view this system as a whole. While each library has its own unique set of needs the nation-wide system of local libraries constitutes an important part of a healthy society. In the nineteenth century there was a stong correlation between the public library movement and the movement for public eduation. People understood that the future of democracy is contingent on an educated citizenry. They also felt that every citizen should have the right of free access to community-owned resources. These ideas coalesced into today's public libraries which function as a system of non-commercial centers that help us define what we value and what we share.

However, libraries are under attack. During the Great Depression, not a single library was closed. Now, as wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of fewer people, what is left for the rest of us? No matter our political persuasions or cultural differences, libraries connect us all. This is our American Commons.

The book contains 150 of my photographs and a forward by Bill Moyers and an afterword by Ann Patchett. Additional contributors include Isaac Asimov, Walker Dawson, Luis Herrera, Barbara Kingsolver, Anne Lamott, Dorothy Lazard, Philip Levine, David Morris, Stuart A.P. Murray, Kelvin K. Selders, Dr. Seuss, Charles Simic, Amy Tan, Chip Ward and E.B. White.

In 2015, the Library of Congress in Washington, DC purchased the entire Public Library project archive for their permanent collection.

"This collection of photographs and text of and about libraries - grand or dead, faded or sumptuous - make up a narrative that combines the public sphere and private memory. Robert Dawson's work is an irrerfutable argument for the preservation of public libraries. His book is profound and heartbreakingly beautiful. " - Toni Morrison

 

GLOBAL LIBRARY PROJECT

The Global Library Project seeks to document, in photographs and videos, the important role of public libraries throughout the world in engaging and supporting an informed citizenry. By providing unrestricted access to information, offering literacy and educational support, and advocating for free and uncensored speech, the shared commons of a public library is one of the last non-commercial public spaces we have in our increasingly privatized global society. Of particular interest to the project is how social, cultural, historic and political issues have shaped a library’s role in the community. Work from the project will be presented in a series of traveling exhibitions, videos, public programs, lectures, and publications.

This project grew out of Robert Dawson’s 18-year “The Public Library: An American Commons”—a photographic project published as The Public Library: A Photographic Essay by Princeton Architectural Press in 2014. Dawson’s earlier work focused on the shared commons of the landscape and environment of the American West, and on global water issues. He then applied this concept of a shared responsibility to a documentation of the American public library system. He is now taking what he learned from the American public library project and, with his team, use photography as a lens to investigate social, cultural and political issues in several European countries, and to encourage communities to support and advocate for public libraries and other community-owned public spaces. Along with Ellen Manchester, co-director and curator and Walker Dawson, videographer, researcher and coordinator they traveled this summer of 2016 to Belgium, Holland, France, Switzerland, Germany, Poland, Ukraine and Moscow. Special attention was given to the role of European libraries in assimilating the large numbers of refugees fleeing poverty and war. In the future the project will explore other regions of Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Oceana, South and Central America and Canada.

“Who knows where the emerging new commons will take us? But Robert Dawson shows us in this collection what is at stake: when a library is open, no matter its size or shape, democracy is open, too.”    Bill Moyers

 

ON READING IN THE SAN JOAQUIN: A PHOTOGRAPHIC SURVEY OF LIBRARIES AND LITERACY IN STOCKTON AND SAN JOAQUIN COUNTY

Photographer Robert Dawson and photo historian Ellen Manchester are spending one year documenting the culture of public libraries and literacy efforts in the city of Stockton and San Joaquin County. The City of Stockton is one of the most diverse medium sized cities in the United States. It is also the largest American city to declare bankruptcy and has been described as one of the most dangerous places in America. In 2007 Stockton led the country with the highest rate of foreclosed homes. It also has one of the lowest rates of literacy in the nation. With such large problems Dawson and Manchester are using photography and a public media campaign to bring attention to individuals and groups bringing education, literacy and hope to a place with many challenges. The project is sponsored by The Library and Literacy Foundation of San Joaquin County and by the Stockton-San Joaquin County Library. Major funding for the project has come from a grant from the Creative Work Fund and also a Guggenheim Fellowship.

The San Joaquin Valley, a part of California’s large agricultural heartland The Central Valley, is sometimes called California’s Third World. It has one of the highest poverty rates in the United States. Here is where education and literacy can make a real difference between a life of poverty and despair or one that offers the possibility for change. Knowing that possibilities exist for change can help lift a person out of hopelessness and point them in the direction of positive action. The single most significant predictor of a child’s success in school is the family’s literacy level. Shockingly, seventy percent of prisoners in the United States are at the lowest levels of reading or are illiterate. Low literacy leads to low earning potential or high unemployment and welfare dependency sometimes making it more difficult for parents to keep their children in school. Literacy is key to pulling people out of poverty and suffering. As social services wane in poor communities like Stockton, libraries have come to fill a void for people who have fallen on hard times.

Connected to this gap in education is our national crisis of growing income inequality. In 2010 the top 1 percent of income earners in the U.S. took home 93 percent of the growth in incomes. The American dream — a good life in exchange for hard work — seems to be slowly dying. The growing divide between the 1 percent and the rest is an inequality not only of outcomes but also of opportunity.

Dawson spent the last eighteen years photographing the role of public libraries in communities throughout the United States. Libraries and literacy help level access to information and provide opportunity and hope. They are a shared commons of our ambitions, our dreams, our memories, our culture and ourselves. In 2014 Princeton Architectural Press published the book from this project with Dawson’s photographs and fifteen essays including a forward by Bill Moyers and an afterword by Ann Patchett.

Dawson learned much about the critical importance of libraries as a commons. He saw how our nation’s widening income inequality can be partly offset by increasing access to literacy and education. Ultimately, this work was about the value of the commons. The commons cannot be commodified. It is a shared gift that is inclusive rather than exclusive. Public libraries and literacy are part of that public good. They are our collective intelligence battling the enclosure of knowledge and information. They are our debt to past generations and our link to the future.

The Raising Literacy Project will help reframe the public discourse about Stockton, libraries and literacy; and help foster civic engagement, public awareness and pride in community. Ultimately, it may help Stockton, San Joaquin County and its libraries to develop a path to a better future for all its citizens.

 

THE GLOBAL WATER PROJECT

There is a growing awareness that the world is entering an era of a water crisis of global dimensions. From a “war for water” over the corporate take-over of water resources in Bolivia to fighting the displacement of tribal people by large dams in India local water issues are beginning to have global implications. The inspiration for this project came during the summer of 2001 when Robert Dawson traveled with writer Jacques Leslie to follow activist Medha Patkar in her effort to stop the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam on the sacred Narmada River in western India. Fifteen years after receiving a Goldman Environmental Prize, Medha is still struggling to improve the lives of thousands of tribal villagers who are being displaced by the dam. It became clear to Dawson that this epic battle over water was symbolic of other struggles being played out throughout much of the world. What these issues represent help define the critical water issues of the 21st century.

Without water, life as we know it ceases.  We have the same amount of water on earth now as we did when our planet was new. We literally are a “Water Planet”. However, more than a billion people today do not have access to clean drinking water. Within the next ten years 40% of the world’s population will live in water-stressed countries. Future wars may be fought over water instead of oil. Armed conflicts have erupted over water in California’s Owens Valley in the 1920’s and the Arab-Israeli war in 1967. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have come close to war over water disputes. And former U.N. Secretary-General Butros Boutros-Ghali said “ the next war in our region will be over the waters of the Nile, not politics.”  In 2000, the populace of the third largest city in Bolivia rioted in the streets against police and soldiers over the privatization of their water. It was an ominous wake-up call from the people of Cochabamba. A recent United Nations report predicted rising demand for water is likely to threaten human and ecological health in many countries for generations to come.

In 1999, Dawson traveled to Vietnam and Cambodia to explore the site of one of the most divisive wars of his lifetime. After spending twenty years photographing water throughout the American West, Dawson used this trip to explore water in the broader international context of Southeast Asia. He began to understand that much of what he learned in the American West was relevant for much of the rest of the world as well. After his 2001 trip to India it became clear that the issue of water was global in scale and he then began his Global Water project. Dawson has made recent explorations of global water to Iceland during the summers of 2004 and 2005 where he photographed the struggle over the construction of a vast dam complex in the Central Highlands. In 2006 and 2007, Dawson has been examining where the oversubscribed Colorado River dries up in northern Mexico, battles over indigenous water rights along the Chixoy River in Guatemala and along the Klamath River in Northern California and water issues throughout South America. This study will eventually result in a large-scale book.

 

THE WATER IN THE WEST PROJECT

The Middle East, Northern Africa and the American Southwest are prime examples of rain-poor regions. There, water means wealth and lack of it means relative poverty. “We are now in a drought here in the West. There is talk of starting to ration water. It’s been the driest year on record in southern California. The Sierra snow pack is very low.” This recent note that I sent to a friend in New York explains why our lack of rain has spread fear of a severe fire season in the West. It reminds me of our last severe drought in the 1980’s. At that time it hardly rained for six years. The snow pack that feeds the state during the dry summer and fall months is as low now as it was then. We are living on borrowed time in the West and many of us know that an extended drought can occur here at any time.


The American West was settled during an unusually wet period and during the 20th Century we have come to expect ample rain and snow to slake our need for water. But that could change at any moment. Tree ring samples have shown that before the coming of European and American settlers the West had extended periods of drought, sometimes up to thirty years. If even a ten-year drought were to occur much of California and the West may have to depopulate. The economic consequences to California’s economy would be staggering. With the world’s fifth largest economy a prolonged drought in California would have profound effects throughout the rest of the United States and the world.


Since 1950 the world has tripled its water use. The Ogallala aquifer (underlying most of the Great Plains) and other key aquifers in India and China continue unrelenting declines. During the growing season, the entire Colorado River vanishes into city water systems and farmland furrows before it can empty into the Gulf of California; for the same reasons that China’s Yellow River no longer reaches the sea. While the water crisis is global, Robert Dawson has chosen to focus his Water in the West project on the American West.  It is here that the impact of our water crisis stands out.

For Dawson, water is the most compelling metaphor and prescient symbol for the legacy of attitudes that have profoundly shaped the landscape of the West. The full range of our nation's regard for the natural world has manifested itself in western water history-from loving stewardship and respect to abuse and plunder. Dawson’s photography examines the cultural values and attitudes that have brought us to this critical point with the natural world.

Robert Dawson's photography in the Water in the West Project evolved from his travels throughout the West and his look at our culture's relationship to water. The work is concerned about our attitudes toward agriculture, mining, resource development, recreation, Native Americans, growth, and environmental controversy. Some of the work addresses the issues with irony. Some of the work looks at our culture's desire to possess, control and shape the land and water to our needs. Some photographs document abuse while others examine a complex, evolving relationship to water that Dawson hopes to influence with his work.

 

A DOUBTFUL RIVER – THE PYRAMID LAKE PROJECT

This book began in 1989 as a collaboration between Robert Dawson and Peter Goin at the start of their Pyramid Lake Project. The project looked at the Truckee River system and the battle for its use between the city of Reno, Nevada; the farmers of western Nevada; and the Paiute Indians of Pyramid Lake, Nevada. This effort was a photographic exploration of the entire Truckee River and Pyramid Lake watershed. The water system is a good example of the critical water issues facing all arid regions of the American West. By focusing on specific regional issues, the project hoped to illustrate broader concerns felt throughout the West. These include issues such as expanding cities verses preserving agricultural land; unchecked development verses vanishing wetlands and open space; and the history of water development in this region. The conflict over the use of the Truckee River between the Reno/Sparks metropolitan area, the ranchers in the Stillwater area, and the Paiute Tribe at Pyramid Lake was of central concern to the project.

The design of the book A Doubtful River traces the length of the Truckee River, from the alpine waters of Lake Tahoe east into Nevada through the rapidly growing city of Reno and then to Derby Dam where the desert waters are divided. A sizeable portion of the river is sent off to the Newlands agricultural area near Fallon and what is left flows on to Pyramid Lake. Because of these diversions, a lake close to Pyramid called Winnemucca has dried up and its important bird sanctuary has been destroyed. The birds that used to nest there must now depend on the endangered wetlands created by agricultural runoff near Stillwater. Our photographs, along with Mary Webb's writing, were made to bear witness to what we encountered along the length of the Truckee River.  We met a wide range of people, environments and landscapes that are dependent on its waters. We hoped that our book could be useful in the debate over this watershed's  environmental, social and political future.

The project evolved out of a larger collaborative project called Water in the West. It began in 1983 when Robert Dawson and Ellen Manchester began to look at water as a critical element of living in the arid American West. They were later joined by Peter Goin and Mark Klett and eventually 15 photographers and advisors. The group periodically exhibited their work, conducted public symposia, publisheed books and articles, and met to share work. The Water in the West Archive is now permanently housed at the Center For Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona. This book was part of an intermittent series of books published by the members of the Water in the West Project on important water issues facing the West.

  In 1994, the Library of Congress in Washington, DC collected an entire set of 530 images from the Truckee River-Pyramid Lake Project for their permanent collection. The Library of Congress included work from our project in their book entitled Eyes of the Nation as well as a CD-ROM from that book. In 1995, work from the project was exhibited at the Washington Center For Photography and the Troyer, Fitzpatrick, Lassman Gallery in Washington, DC. Peter Goin and Robert Dawson particpated at that time in a lecture and panel discussion about their project at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

 

FAREWELL, PROMISED LAND PROJECT

Photographer Robert Dawson and writer Gray Brechin in 1992 won the Dorothea Lange/Paul Taylor Prize from the Center For Documentary Studies at Duke University. At that time, they proposed to look at California thirty years after the publication of Ray Dasmann's classic of the conservation movement, The Destruction of California. They then spent the next five years driving and flying over the state to record its dramatic transformation. As they did so, they also observed the close relationship between California's environmental and social history. The result is a handsome large-format book published by the University of California Press in March, 1999 with a concurrent photographic exhibition at the Oakland Museum.  

Both book and exhibit examine the history of, and alternatives to, the destruction of California's environment. In the past 150 years, native people, plant life and animal populations have been decimated by economic development. The book explores the history of this destruction and why, with notable exceptions, it continues today. History reveals what we have lost while the present reveals what remains to be done if California's wild lands and agriculture are to be spared from total and piecemeal urbanization.

For all the destruction which they witnessed, however, Brechin and Dawson discovered that California remains a remarkable source of innovation which is often fueled by love of the place and memory of what it once was. They conclude by focusing on individuals and organizations attempting to deal with California's environmental issues on a grass roots level. From river restoration in Los Angeles to community restoration in San Francisco, they discovered individuals who have dedicated their lives to restoring the promise of America's Promised Land.

The book, Farewell, Promised Land: Waking From the California Dream, contains 200 images including historical photographs, illustrations and writing as well as contemporary writing and photography by Brechin and Dawson.  A major exhibition of work from the project entitled "Awakening From the California Dream: An Environmental History" was shown at the Oakland Museum in 1999. The Museum also conducted several public programs in conjunction with the exhibit. An in-house video about the exhibit was produced as well. A three-year tour throughout California was sponsored by the California Council For the Humanities and California Exhibitions Resource Alliance.

 

THE GREAT CENTRAL VALLEY PROJECT

Between 1982 and 1986 Robert Dawson and Stephen Johnson produced the Great Central Valley Project. The project was photographic survey and examination of California's intensely farmed agricultural heartland. The Valley's huge agricultural productivity makes it a major factor in California's wealth. Our project was concerned with the modern reshaping of the Valley's landscape and the ramifications of this throughout the American West. In 1986 a major traveling exhibition from the project began a statewide tour after opening at the California Academy of Sciences, the sponsoring institution. We received major funding from the California Council For the Humanities to produce a symposium in connection with the exhibition at the Academy and from the California Arts Council to pay for the traveling exhibition. A book from the project, The Great Central Valley: California's Heartland, with writer Gerald Haslam was published by the University of California Press in 1993. Since that date it has received numerous awards including a listing as one of the Best Photography Books of the Year for 1993 by the New York Times, Book Show Award from the Association of American University Presses, Silver Medal for California Literature from the Commonwealth Club, Non Fiction Award from the Bay Area Books Reviewers Association. 

The importance of the Great Central Valley Project is emphasized by the fact that the valley is so crucial to California's history and economy and yet remains relatively unknown as a region. Until this project, it had never been the focus of an interdisciplinary and interpretive effort of this kind. Problems associated with valley agriculture reflect similar problems throughout the West. Some of the problems explored by the project included: water use and ground water depletion, increasing salinity and pesticide contamination in the soil, and survival of the small family farm. In addition to examining the problems of the valley, the project was also an examination of the sense of place of the Great Central Valley. Dawson, Johnson and Haslam are natives of the valley and yet felt the need to eventually leave their home. Years later, when they came back to the valley to create this project, they brought a native's insight of their own home with an outside perspective.

"The Valley is beginning to fill with people and it is losing thousands of acres of cultivated land annually to urban and suburban development. It sometimes appears to natives that the shopping center has become the territory's leading crop."      -Gerald Haslam, Writer

"Someday we will have to plow up the malls to plant something we can eat."                     -Arnold"Jefe" Rojas, Vaquero

 

PHOTOGRAPHER-IN-RESIDENCE, CITY OF SAN JOSE, CA

Imagine a world in which there is no sewage treatment. Think of what each of our lives would be like in this disease-ridden, foul-smelling world. In some ways it would be similar to the early nineteenth-century cities of Europe and America. At that time the modern ideas of the origins of infectious disease began. Coupled with this was the beginning of the great sanitation movement that changed the ways we treat waste. These improvements helped extend the average lifespan in the twentieth-century by an astonishing thirty-five years. The San Jose and Santa Clara Water Pollution Control Plant is a continuation of that nineteenth-century movement.  

Robert Dawson has worked for six months with the City of San Jose's Cultural Affairs Office and the Environmental Services Department. He is the City's first Photographer-in-Residence at their Water Pollution Control Plant. Most of us are generally unaware of wastewater treatment until it doesn't work. Failure to sustain water infrastructures has been a telltale indicator of societal decline and stagnation. Dawson's photographs of our contemporary infrastructure depict a huge, complex but delicate machine. Approximately $1 billion will be needed to repair or replace parts over the next ten years. Dawson's work is intended to bring attention to this invisible part of our daily lives, and to help generate awareness of when government works.

The plant processes over 100 million gallons of sewage a day. The scale of the work done here is enormous. The length of the six-month residency allowed Dawson to explore most it. The People work diligently to keep the Plant functioning efficiently and the South San Francisco Bay alive. The Place consists of a massive infrastructure and surprisingly, includes areas of astonishing beauty. The Treatment is highly complex, environmentally sensitive and never ends. The Plant was first built in 1962. Dawson’s rephotographs show the changes over the fifty-year History of the Water Pollution Control Plant. Three exhibits came out of this work. One was at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library in San Jose, CA in 2010. A long term exhbit was shown at City of San Jose's City Windows Gallery from 2010 to 2011. A permanent exhibit of the work is on display at the City's Water Pollution Control Plant. A catalog from the project is being planned. The title of the resulting work from the project is The Conscience of the City: Treating Wastewater in Silicon Valley.

“The sewer is the conscience of the city. Everything there converges and confronts everything else. In that livid spot there are shades, but there are no longer any secrets.”  -Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

 

THE NEW DEAL LEGACY PROJECT

Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Great Depression created a vast infrastructure for the nation that is now mostly invisible or taken for granted. We are now living in relatively affluent times off the work of people living during hard times. The purpose of the New Deal Legacy project is to show the forgotten legacy and lasting impact of the New Deal throughout California. The focus is on the built environment as a physical manifestation of the great ideals of the New Deal. The project hopes to show a model of good government from the past that could serve us again in the future.

Only five years separated Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1933 and the last New Deal measures in 1938. The New Dealers perceived that they had done more in those five years than had been done in any comparable period in American history, but they also saw that there was much still to be done. Reflecting on the accomplishments of the New Deal in 1939 Eleanor Roosevelt said, “I believe in the things that have been done. They helped but did not solve the fundamental problems…I never believed the Federal government could solve the whole problem. It bought us time to think.” The New Deal is now given credit for giving Americans “hope, action and self-respect”. People during the Depression began to see that government counts, and in the right hands, it can be made to work.

Taken as a whole this project is a prism with which to view the federal government’s investment in the people and state of California in the 1930’s. This investment helped end the Depression, aided the war effort during World War II and laid the groundwork for the post-war economic boom. It also vastly expanded the idea of a shared public domain. The idea of the commons has been under attack recently and this project will help us remember the lessons of when government worked.

 

THE CALIFORNIA PROJECT

It has been said that California is a state of the Union and also a state of mind. It is the third-largest state by land area and has an astonishing array of geology from the Sierra Nevadas in the east, desert areas in the southeast and the forests in the northwest. The center of the state is dominated by my home of the Central Valley, one of the most productive agricultural areas on earth. It has one of the most beautiful and varied coastlines in the world from the sunny beaches of the south to fog-shrouded redwood forest of the north. Ecologically, California is one of the richest and most diverse parts of the world and includes some of the most endangered ecological communities.  The Official State Animal is the California Grizzly Bear which is now extinct.

The Official California State Beverage is wine, the Official State Mineral is gold and the Official State Soil is San Joaquin. Each has contributed to making California the extraordinary place it is today. If California were a separate county it would have the seventh largest economy in the world. However, income varies wildly by region and profession. The San Joaquin Valley is considered one of the most economically depressed regions in the country.

California is the most populous state in the United States. It was one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse areas in pre-Columbian North America; the area was inhabited by more than 70 distinct groups of Native Americans. Today, it has the largest population of white American in the U.S. It also has the largest minority population in the county, making up 57% of the state population. 40% of the population spoke languages other than English. Over 200 languages are known to be spoken and read in California. Including indigenous languages, California is viewed as one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world. This state also has the most Roman Catholics and the largest Muslim community population in the U.S.

I was born and raised in California. Although I have traveled extensively, I have lived all my life here in my native state. It is a land of superlatives and I have spent most of my life using photography to understand the hope and the promise as well as the tragedy and sorrow of this most astonishing of Promised Lands. The images in this group represent photographs that I made over thirty years of work. It is an ongoing project that will eventually culminate in a large-format book.