Get the best of Commons Magazine — FREE!

Saving A National Treasure

New photo exhibit illuminates our great loss when library budgets are chopped

Since 1994 Robert Dawson, a photography instructor at San Jose State and Stanford, has visited more than 17,000 libraries coast-to-coast—some grand, most humble—to document the central role they play in the life of their communities. This summer he is crossing the country again with his son Walker to celebrate these national treasures. Follow his adventures and see new photos at Library Road Trip You can also make a contribution to his project.

An exhibit of his photos, “Public Library: An American Commons” is now on display at the San Francisco Public Library. Viewing a slideshow of Dawson’s exhibit on the website of the Design Observer is a moving experience.

From the computer facilities packed with users at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago to a relaxed public meeting at the Newport Public Library in Vermont, from to the grand Art Deco entrance of the Brooklyn Public Library to the metal shed housing the Tuscarora Library and Post Office in Nevada, there’s no doubt these are a national treasure of the same magnitude as The Declaration of Independence or Yellowstone Park.

“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,” writes Josh Walleart on “Design Observer”:http://places.designobserver.com/feature/public-library-an-american-commons/26228/

But public libraries today are imperiled through draconian budget cuts imposed by politicians at the behest of their paymasters, who shriek at any suggestion of a tax increase, even to maintain a sacred American institution. Books and story hours for children, computer access and job information for the unemployed, a meeting place and source of inspiration for everyone—these things seem to matter less in budget debates than continuing the banquet of lavish tax breaks demanded by the wealthy, who enjoy their own private reading rooms, social clubs and art collections.

I can’t imagine anyone who’s seen these photos opposing higher taxes that would help our libraries serve more people.