The Public Library: A Photographic Essay

In June, I saw Dawson’s slideshow of public library photos, appropriately at the public library. The book finally swung into my hands after making its way through the hold-shelf for several others. A great reminder of the photos I’d already seen, some fantastic spaces captured that showcase the splendor and the closure all within the same breath. Juxtaposing Detroit’s decrepit branch against Seattle’s shining star seems almost cruel. The book comes with several essays from fellow library-nerds, like Bill Moyers, Anne Lamott, Chip Ward, and including a letter from E.B. White which was quite perfect. As for Dawson’s introduction and photo notes, I could do without his martyrdom, constantly noting when he’s attacked by bystanders or not allowed to take pictures by Indian Chiefs. But he is photographer, and so he should have remained outside of the realm of text. Learned that the increase in untreated mental illness in California is a result of the Lanterman Act of 1969, closing several large psychiatric hospitals (someone is incoherently screaming at my corner right now, I benefit from the cacophony that trickled down from that momentous Act). The best essay was by Chip Ward – Enriched by what we share: a green perspective on the public library as a cultural commons, detailing the thought that went into designing the Salt Lake City library but also waxing philosophic about current role of libraries. “When an ecosystem is under stress, having numerous possibilities for reconfiguration can be the difference between health and failure. Biodiversity is a key measure of an ecosystem’s viability because it translates into options and possibilities when turmoil happens…” and “The belief that we are responsible for each other’s social, economic, and political well-being, that we will care for our weakest members compassionately, should be the keystone in the moral architecture of a democratic culture. It is not enough to say it. In the public library we try to do it…”
E.B. White’s 1971 letter:

A library is many things. It’s a place to go, to get in out of the rain. It’s a place to go if you want to sit and think. But particularly it is a place where books live, and where you can get in touch with other people, and other thoughts, through books. If you want to find out about something, the information is in the reference books—the dictionaries, the encyclopedias, the atlases. If you like to be told a story, the library is the place to go. Books hold most of the secrets of the world, most of the thoughts that men and women have had. And when you are reading a book, you and the author are alone together—just the two of you. A library is a good place to go when you feel unhappy, for there, in a book, you may find encouragement and comfort. A library is a good place to go when you feel bewildered or undecided, for there, in a book, you may have your question answered. Books are good company, in sad times and happy times, for books are people—people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of a book.