I walked into the Carnegie building that chilly spring morning as the newest employee of the Lawrence Public Library. The library had moved to its temporary location and this all-staff gathering was an opportunity to meet as team and envision our library’s future. The keynote speaker that day was Nancy Rosenwald who, having recently helped elevate her South Carolina library to Best Small Library in America, was there to share her expertise. Rosenwald invited us to be “agents for change” in this profession of “vital and transformative work”. She spoke of public libraries as “third places”, free grounds for social interaction that are not in the home or work sphere, where the magic of community can unfold. “Foster the human connection,” she urged us, “love the children and get to yes!”
It was inspiring. And it got me to thinking: Where would we be without our public library system?
Robert Dawson tackles this question in his book of photographic essays entitled The Public Library. “There are approximately seventeen thousand public libraries in the United States,” Dawson begins. “Since I began this project in 1994, I have photographed hundreds of libraries in forty-seven states.” This eighteen year project necessitated epic road trips, during which Dawson gained perspective on the history of libraries by listening to A People’s History of the United States and 1491. He describes his resulting images as capturing “some of the poorest and wealthiest, oldest and newest, most crowded and most isolated, even abandoned, libraries.”
The Public Library is punctuated with insightful essays by Isaac Asimov, Barbara Kingsolver, Dr. Seuss, E. B. White and others. I was most drawn, however, to the stunning photographs of the libraries in all their glory, or at times, in all their nostalgic decay. From libraries thriving in sheds and strip malls to libraries drowned in Katrina and abandoned on the prairie, it is clear that our nation’s public libraries have either adapted to best fit their community or have been lost in time, killed by lack of resources, buried by disaster.
As we transition into our beautiful new building this July, I urge you to reflect on the role the public library has played throughout Lawrence history. From a 20th century Carnegie building to this modern glass-lined new beginning, the Lawrence Public Library has evolved with the support of an ever-changing community. Who knows what the future could hold?
For more on the importance of creating a “third place” in our communities, read The great good place : cafés, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, hair salons, and other hangouts at the heart of a community by Ray Oldenburg.
To follow Robert Dawson’s library travels, log onto Library Road Trip. - Rachael Perry, Readers’ Advisory