The Public Library: A Photographic Love Letter to Humanity’s Greatest Sanctuary of Knowledge, Freedom, and Democracy
By Maria Popova
“A library is many things,” E.B. White once wrote in a letter to the children of a little town to inspire them to fall in love with their new library. “But particularly it is a place where books live, and where you can get in touch with other people, and other thoughts, through books… Books hold most of the secrets of the world, most of the thoughts that men and women have had.”
As the daughter of a formally trained librarian and an enormous lover of, collaborator with, and supporter of public libraries (you may have noticed I always include a public library link for books I write about; I also re-donate a portion of Brain Pickings donations to the New York Public Library each year) I was instantly enamored with The Public Library: A Photographic Essay (public library) by photographer Robert Dawson — at once a love letter and a lament eighteen years in the making, a wistful yet hopeful reminder of just what’s at stake if we let the greatest bastion of public knowledge humanity has ever known slip into the neglected corner of cultural priorities. Alongside Dawson’s beautiful photographs are short reflections on the subject by such celebrated minds as Isaac Asimov, Anne Lamott, and E.B. White. From architectural marvels to humble feats of human ingenuity, from the august reading room of the New York Public Library to the trailer-library at Death Valley National Park, braving the glaring sun at one of the hottest places on earth, from the extraordinary vaulted ceilings of LA’s Children’s Library to the small shack turned into a book memorial in the country’s only one-person town, the remarkable range reveals our elemental need for libraries — as sanctuaries of learning, as epicenters of community, as living records of civic identity, and above all as a timelier-than-ever testament that information and human knowledge belong to everybody; not to corporate monopolies or government agencies or ideological despots, but to the people.
In the foreword, the great Bill Moyers — who has long championed the power of reading and self-initiated education — echoes Ray Bradbury’s assertion that libraries are essential for democracy and writes:
The library is being reinvented in response to the explosion of information and knowledge, promiscuous budget cuts in the name of austerity, new technology, and changing needs. Who knows where the emerging new commons will take us? But Robert Dawson shows us in this collection what is at stake: when a library is open, no matter its size or shape, democracy is open, too.
Some years ago, I came across a wonderful effort by a librarian in the small city of Troy in Michigan, which had just opened its first public library. To get the children in the community excited about books and reading, Marguerite Hart reached out to some of the era’s most celebrated minds — writers, actors, senators — and asked them to write letters to the children of Troy, extolling the value of libraries and the joy of books. To her surprise, she got an astounding 91 responses. I spotlighted those letters — including ones from Dr. Seuss, Isaac Asimov, Neil Armstrong, and E.B. White — a few years ago and was delighted to see some of them included in Dawson’s book. Curiously, however, there appears to be a factual error: Dawson lists the city as Troy, New York, whereas in fact it was Troy, Michigan.
But no matter the human error, the heartening humanity of the letters speaks for itself:
One of the most beautiful reflections comes from the inimitable Anne Lamott, who celebrates her 60th birthday on April 10. Her poignant essay “Steinbeck Country” chronicles how Lamott and some friends — writers and artists from all over the West Coast — banded together to save the libraries at Salinas, one of California’s poorest communities, after the government had threatened to close them. This would’ve made Salinas the largest city in the United States to lose its libraries to budget cuts. Lamott writes:
A free public library is a revolutionary notion, and when people don’t have free access to books, then communities are like radios without batteries. You cut people off from essential sources of information — mythical, practical, linguistic, political — and you break them. You render them helpless in the face of political oppression.
Writers and actors poured in from all over. A poet drove nearly 200 miles from Sacramento. Another writer flew all day to get there. Lamott herself hitched a ride from the Bay Area with the celebrated Buddhist artist and teacher Jack Kornfield. The group staged a 24-hour “emergency read-in” to raise awareness — not just for libraries as cultural institutions, but also for the human capital that powered them. Lamott writes:
We were there to celebrate some of the rare intelligence capabilities that our country can actually be proud of — those of librarians. I see them as healers and magicians. Librarians can tease out of inarticulate individuals enough information about what they are after to lead them on to the path of connection. They are trail guides through the forest of shelves and aisles — you turn a person loose who has limited skills, and he’ll be walloped by the branches. But librarians match up readers with the right books. . . .
Ultimately, they managed to rally up enough media attention, which in turn garnered enough money to keep the library open. Lamott remembers:
A bunch of normally self-obsessed artist types came together to say to the people of Salinas: We care about your children, your stories, and your freedom. Something has gone so wrong in this country that needs to be fixed, and we care about that. Reading and books are medicine. Stories are written and told by and for people who have been broken, but who have risen up, or will rise, if attention is paid to them. Those people are you and us. Stories and truth are splints for the soul, and that makes today a sacred gathering. Now we were all saying: Pass it on.
In the afterword, Ann Patchett — a modern-day sage of writing and life — concludes with a plea so earnest, so urgent, and so deeply necessary:
Know this — if you love your library, use your library. Support libraries in your words and deeds. If you are fortunate enough to be able to buy your books, and you have your own computer with which to conduct research, and you’re not in search of a story hour for your children, then don’t forget about the members of your community who are like you but perhaps lack your resources — the ones who love to read, who long to learn, who need a place to go and sit and think. Make sure that in your good fortune you remember to support their quest for a better life. That’s what a library promises us, after all: a better life. And that’s what libraries have delivered.
The Public Library is absolutely wonderful in its entirety, at once an ode to the glory of our most democratic institutions and a culturally necessary prompt to defend them like we would defend our freedom to live, learn, and be — a freedom to which the library is our highest celebration.
Photographs © Robert Dawson courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press
UPDATE: See A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader — a collection of 121 letters to children by some of the most inspiring humans of our time about the transformative power of reading, with all proceeds benefiting the New York public library system.
Published April 9, 2014