Robert Dawson is always surprised when people suggest that libraries are disappearing. Not so, he says.
"There are almost 17,000 libraries in the U.S. -- public libraries, not school or private ones," the San Francisco-based photographer and author says. "Today, more people are using libraries than ever."
Dawson, 63, should know. His new book, "The Public Library: A Photographic Essay," is the product of 20 years of research and on-site visits to libraries across the country.
With dozens of color photographs, a foreword by Bill Moyers, and essays, letters, and poems by Barbara Kingsolver, Amy Tan, Isaac Asimov, E.B. White and others, the book is an informative tribute to the value of libraries in our ever-changing society.
Sitting among his photographs in the Noe Valley home he shares with his wife, photo historian Ellen Manchester, and their son, Walker, Dawson said he thinks of libraries as part of America's "commons" -- places we all use, such as parks, roads and schools.
The book grew out of his work photographing and writing about water and the environment -- projects that produced earlier books on Mono Lake, the Truckee River and California's Central Valley. "It wasn't much of a leap to go from the commons of the environment to the commons of the library -- it's all part of what we share," he said.
Dawson, who teaches photography at San Jose State and Stanford University, said he started taking pictures of libraries two decades ago in Alaska and Florida. As the book took shape, he knew he needed more. In 2011, he and Walker made the first of two library road trips "to connect the dots," visiting 189 libraries in eight weeks.
The results are telling. Dawson's images show a range of institutions -- old and new, large and small, some with meager resources and others with state-of-the-art design. Libraries can be found in former railroad stations, churches and strip malls.
The world's first tax-supported public library was established in Peterborough, N.H., in 1833, Dawson notes, as part of the establishment of public education in the early 19th century. "They knew that it was important to educate people," he says. "If you really wanted a democracy, you had to have an educated public."
Libraries have evolved to meet modern times; in many poor communities, Dawson says, they offer the only Internet connection in town. "People go there to look for jobs, fill out their résumés. Government forms are now e-forms. Libraries are a great leveler -- they allow people without means to function in society." They're also the repositories of civic memories about work, war, triumphs and tragedies. "They represent what we value," he says.
Like many Americans, Dawson has loved libraries since childhood. He grew up in West Sacramento, and with his mother, a teacher, made frequent trips to the Arthur Turner Library there. "I read every science-fiction book in the library," he says. "For me, it was a way to start thinking beyond West Sacramento."
In college, at UC Santa Cruz, Dawson met famed photographer Ansel Adams, who lived just down Highway 1 in Carmel. "He had this amazing policy: If you wanted him to look at your work and came to his house Friday at 5 and had a cocktail with him, he'd give you feedback," he says.
One of the things Adams said stayed with him. "He said he was as proud of his work on the environment as he was of his photographs. That was pretty heady for a young man like me, and it really got me thinking about my own direction."
"The Public Library" is a work of inspired advocacy; while Dawson doesn't think libraries are disappearing, he says they need to be preserved. Most of those he visited are thriving; others have cut hours, or closed entirely. One of his most poignant photos is of an abandoned library in Sunflower, Mississippi -- "tragic," he says.
Still, Dawson came away from the project feeling encouraged about Americans' shared values. "It's a big country, and it can be hard to think of what we share in common," he says. "The U.S. is so diverse. The media tends to focus on our differences, and yes, the divisiveness is there.
"But it seems to me we should be focusing on the things that unite us. We have more in common than we think. Everywhere I went, for the most part, people got it about this project. Most people work hard. They love their families, love their communities -- and they love their local libraries."