April 30, 2014

The Public Library

The Public Library presents a wide selection of Dawson's photographs— from the majestic reading room at the New York Public Library to Allensworth, California's one-room Tulare County Free Library built by former slaves.”

The above quote is from the Amazon description of Robert Dawson’s new book The Public Library: A Photographic Essay. The library at Allensworth is one of the many libraries Dawson photographed over the last eighteen years. The little wooden one-room building began life as the town’s first schoolhouse. Thanks to the Allensworth family, after the town’s new two-room schoolhouse opened in 1913, the building was reincarnated as the Mary Dickerson Memorial Library. Named in honor of Ms. Allensworth’s mother, it became the first branch of the Tulare County Free Library.

In the book’s introduction Dawson writes about the influence books and libraries had on Oprah Winfrey, Malcolm X, and others.

"For me, those dreams started when I heard the stories of my rich heritage. When I read about Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman and Mary McLeod Bethune and Frederick Douglass, I knew that there was possibility for me." (Oprah Winfrey)

"My alma mater was books, a good library. I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity." (Malcolm X)

Over the years the mission of libraries has changed from simply a place to borrow books or read a newspaper, to a place for free internet access, job-hunting assistance, or shelter from adverse weather. In her essay Ms. Dorothy Lazard of the Oakland Public Library talks about the role of today's librarians:

"We know we are hopelessly unqualified to treat what ails many of the people who pass through our doors… There is deterioration all around us, yet we carry on, providing service to the underserved, a patient ear to the unheard. We are acting as the last outposts of community space."

There is an excerpt of The Public Library on NPR, which covers how Dawson began the project and the extended road trips he took with his son Walker.

Dawson feels that “In a culture that is increasingly privatized, libraries are among the last free spaces we have left. Public libraries are worth fighting for, and this book is my way of fighting.”

Mrs. Sarah Hindsman became custodian of the Allensworth library’s collection in 1926.  The books were moved from the library in 1931 and shelved in the northeast corner of the Hindsman store, until the library branch closed in 1943.