Saturday, April 16, 2011

American Commons

On Tuesday, I had the chance to hear photographer Robert Dawson speak at the San Francisco Public Library where his exhibit Public Library: An American Commons is on display through June 12. Representing 17 years of work that is still in progress it is epic, touching and enlightening.

Dawson, a native Californian who has also written and documented extensively on the topic of water in the West, is clearly much more than a photographer. His library project takes the perspective of an anthropologist, social commentary, architectural appreciation, literary critique and poet. While he documents temples of reading with grand structures in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Seattle, Portland and other urban hubs, the most fascinating are tiny libraries in remote towns. In many places they are the only source of the written word or internet access. One in the desert, no larger than a garden shed, serves as both a library and post office. He also has a fascinating series of images of post-Katrina New Orleans libraries, victims of that tragedy we don't hear much about.

Though not in the exhibit, he shared new images of the tool library in Berkeley.

Anyone in San Francisco should take time to see the exhibit or catch one of Dawson's talks listed in the link above. He plans to eventually publish a book but will likely spend another 17 years on that. His next goal is to visit the middle part of the country, especially those areas that are strongly anti-government to see what attitudes are about public supported libraries there.

The dichotomy he emphasized in his talk is that not since the Great Depression has use of libraries been so high and funding so threatened. For some, the library is a lifeline to seek employment online or find warmth in the winter. With that comes much more and a reminder that this is a true American Commons.

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