Public Library: An American Commons

Photographs by Robert Dawson, April 9 - June 12, 2011
For Immediate Release
Contact: Michelle Jeffers
(415) 557-4282;

March 14, 2011

Public Library: An American Commons

Photographs by Robert Dawson on view in the San Francisco Main Library, Jewett Gallery, April 9 - June 12, 2011

The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man. - T.S. Elliot

Public Library: An American Commons is an exhibition and photographic survey of public libraries throughout the U.S. by San Francisco-based photographer Robert Dawson. There are more than 17,000 public libraries in this country. Since Dawson began the project in 1994 he has photographed hundreds of libraries in 16 states. From Alaska to Florida and from New England to California, the photographs show a vibrant, essential yet vulnerable system.

Library in town built by former slaves, Allensworth, Calif.This exhibition, on view April 9-June 12 in the Jewett Gallery at the Main Library, 100 Larkin St., San Francisco, includes approximately 70 black and white and color photographs. Among the images is a photograph of the Tulare County (Calif.) Free Public Library, in Col. Allensworth State Historic Park, which was founded as an agricultural community in the 19th century by a group of former slaves.

Hurricane Katrina-damaged library, New Orleans, La.Another photograph shows a library from New Orleans, La., damaged in 2007 by Hurricane Katrina; this library remains closed and patrons must check their books out of a nearby trailer. A third example shows a library in a trailer in Death Valley National Park. This serves as the only library for hundreds of miles. The roof is shaded to lessen the intense summer heat of one of the hottest places in the world. While each library has its own unique set of needs, the nationwide system of local libraries constitutes an important part of a healthy society. In the 19th century there was a strong correlation between the public library movement and the movement for public education.

People understood that the future of democracy was contingent on an educated citizenry and that every citizen should have the right of free access to community-owned resources. These ideas coalesced into today’s public libraries which function as a system of non-commercial centers that help us define what we value and what we share.

Library in Death Valley National Park, Calif.This exhibition comes at an important time for the San Francisco Public Library which celebrates National Library Week from April 11-15 and the 15th anniversary of the Main Library which opened April 18, 1996. 2011 also marks the 50th anniversary of the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library who help make exhibitions and many of their related programs possible.

Related Programs:

Artist Talk with Robert Dawson

April 12, 6 p.m., Koret Auditorium, Main Library, 100 Larkin St.

Gallery Walkthrough with Photographer Robert Dawson

Photographer Robert Dawson and photo curator/historian, Ellen Manchester, will lead an informal tour and discussion of Dawson’s photographs in the exhibition.
May 7, 6 p.m., Jewett Gallery, Main Library, 100 Larkin St.

From Carnegie to Koolhaas: Robert Dawson’s photographs of Public Libraries: Artist talk with Robert Dawson

From highlighting historic Carnegie libraries to exploring contemporary architecture such as the Rem Koolhaas-designed Seattle Public Library, Dawson's photographs depict a diverse range of library architecture throughout the U.S.
May 14, 3 p.m., Noe Valley/Sally Brunn Branch Library, 451 Jersey St., San Francisco.

Carnegie to Contemporary: Building San Francisco Public Libraries

Panel discussion of San Francisco architects and author on the architecture and design of San Francisco branch libraries including LEED and sustainable design.
May 18, 6 p.m., Koret Auditorium, Main Library, 100 Larkin St.

All programs at the Library are Free.

Note to editors: High resolution images of the photographs in this exhibition are available. Robert Dawson is also available for interviews.

Take our survey