Public Library: An American Commons


These are brutal times for public libraries. Two years ago they froze book purchases. Last year they cut staff and reduced service hours, spreading the pain among branches in rolling blackouts. This year they are on the chopping block again, and there is nothing to cut but bone. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed budget includes an 8 percent cut to library funding. The Houston Public Library is trying to make sense of a nearly 30 percent cut. Two weeks ago the library board in Gary, Indiana, voted to close the main library; it was either that or lose all four satellite branches.

What’s at stake here is more than access to a room full of books. The modern American public library is reading room, book lender, video rental outlet, internet café, town hall, concert venue, youth activity center, research archive, history museum, art gallery, homeless day shelter, office suite, coffeeshop, seniors’ clubhouse and romantic hideaway rolled into one. 1 In small towns of the American West, it is also the post office and the backdrop of the local gun range. These are functions that the digital public libraries of the future will never be able to recreate.

Since 1994, Robert Dawson has surveyed hundreds of the more than 17,000 public libraries in the United States. The photographs presented here, drawn from a current exhibition at the San Francisco Public Library, capture a broad range of American experience, from the Tulare County Free Library built by farmers in the self-governed black township of Allensworth, California, to a New Orleans library damaged by Hurricane Katrina, tagged with the X-Code of an Urban Search and Rescue Team. Dawson’s photographs make the case for the public library as an American Commons, perhaps the greatest we’ve ever had.

Editors' Note

Public Library: An American Commons has been expanded into a book published by Princeton Architectural Press.

  1. My romantic perspective may be skewed, as I got engaged at the Minneapolis Public Library; although I note in my defense that I had the good sense to propose at the joyful Central Library designed by Cesar Pelli, rather than at the neighborhood bunker, the Walker branch.
Robert Dawson and Josh Wallaert, “Public Library: An American Commons,” Places Journal, April 2011. Accessed 05 Jun 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • elizabeth shipley

    04.13.2011 at 11:55

    I read an article where a consultant looked carefully at how a certain library in a certain locality was being used and came to the conclusion that for many, it was a place to come use the computers for a multitude of reasons, pick up books on hold, etc. The conclusion was that maybe libraries should not hold books on shelves since they take up valuable space. People could order their books via the inter library loan and pick them up at a kiosk. Begin a former librarian, the purpose of books on a shelf gives the browser time to browse many books on a certain subject, one that you do not get on the internet. I would gladly pay extra for using a library. For example, if you live out of the city of E. Lansing, MI., you pay a yearly fee for the use of the resources about $25.00/year!

  • Georgia

    04.13.2011 at 18:08

    The view of the room in the Fairhaven, Mass. library is stunning!

    I frequent my NYC branch library. My toddler and I enjoy the children's floor.

  • Miroslav Svestka

    04.13.2011 at 20:43

    You are sooo correct ... Libraries are in danger these days ... Such a shame !!!!

  • Doug Hill

    04.14.2011 at 17:00

    Among those many functions, list public restroom. Often the only one a stranger in town can find.

  • Frank Elliott

    04.14.2011 at 18:20

    Thanks so much for sharing this wonderful photographic exhibit about the role the public library plays Mr. Dawson. Here in Minneapolis, we have several large regional branch libraries. They serve as community centers for author signings and talks and also provide meeting space for many community organizations. A fascinating newer service is homework help where subject experts help students with anything from reading and english to math and physics assignments. Even these larger libraries have had their hours cut back. For example, our Southdale regional library is only open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and from 12-5 on Sundays. Students and families could certainly use longer hours for study, research, and using that libraries wonderful printed, video, audio, and computer resources during longer hours. It's too bad that cities like Houston are cutting back their library budget by 30 percent this year. We are not struggling like that yet, but who knows what will happen even to the employment centers at many libraries if the economy does not improve.

  • Cynthia Helffrich

    04.15.2011 at 11:35

    Here's an innovative concept that the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh came up with in partnership with the new Pittsburgh Public Market - both community gathering places. The Carnegie Library system is suffering funding shortages and making many cutbacks. This plan will bring many of the services of the library to the community at a minimal cost and also provides those services during the weekends when many of the community branches are closed. The Market is located in the Strip District which is Pittsburgh's Historic Market District.


    04.15.2011 at 16:15

    The introduction of incredible innovations regarding electronics is welcomed throughout the earth. Most of the products offer a person easier access to something or a splendid shining new perspective towards a cone complicated situation. However, just as it is a frightening prospect to envision food shelves empty throughout this magnificent country, what of shelves serving as temporary homes to books?

    Without the proper nutrition the human body suffers and decays. Food for the mind is parallel to that of the physical realm. Libraries contain life sustaining ingredients. Encompassing this little world with all its contents, they can take even humans to the heavens cost free via pages.

    Why, ever, would we as a people allow that infinite amount of sustenance to be smothered? Our lives shall surely shrivel in more ways than one if libraries are not preserved and protected. Try finding any place where you'll encounter items with what we can only describe as an extremely enviable shelf life. Life being the lingering word...

  • Nils Ohlson

    06.10.2011 at 18:07

    Wonderful photographs! It's very telling that in many communities the library is just a trailer-sized building (or an actual trailer!), but is very important to that community. Many are beautiful architectural marvels. Alameda's Carnegie Library has been converted to an administrative building because the collection no longer fit, but I still love that building. No matter how modest or how grand, all of these libraries are both crucially important and gravely endangered. The erosion of every common societal resource at the hands of the rapacious rich is typified by the library, often the only commons in a town.

  • Susannah Hays

    06.10.2011 at 23:32

    Mark Twain is smiling on you Bob. Without a Library or Camera Obscura, I don't think I would have understood the world at all.

  • Manjula M.

    06.28.2011 at 19:15

    Thanks for this great post on this great project. Dawson is now doing a cross country road trip to finish up the project. He's blogging about it at