Rushville Republican

June 3, 2014

Book Review: 'The Public Library: A Photographic Essay' by Robert Dawson

By Terri Schlichenmeyer
Rushville Republican

---- — Last week, you traveled to Russia.

You were in London the week before, and the Arctic the week before that. You’ve ridden donkeys, done lab research, danced a quadrille, and dined with important people, infidels, rabble rousers, romantics, and a ghost or two.

And this all happened within a few miles of your home, because that’s where your library is. So how does your home-away-from-home compare to others? Browse through “The Public Library” by Robert Dawson and find out.

Imagine how many books you’d find in seventeen thousand libraries.

As Dawson wrote the introduction to this book, that’s how many public libraries there were in the U.S. He knows, because he spent eighteen years trying to “capture some of the poorest and wealthiest, oldest and newest, most crowded and most isolated, even abandoned, libraries.”

Libraries began in the U.S., says essayist Stuart A.P. Murray, when colonists received shipments of books from their overseas homelands. For awhile, officials inspected the crates’ contents for “suitability and morality,” but that practice became too cumbersome as the number of precious arrivals increased. Many colonists had private libraries; the venerable New York Public Library got its beginning, in fact, when the chaplain to the British Army “left his library to the city” in 1700.

By 1910, every state in America had a library.

Here, book lovers will drool over photos of the Seattle Central Library, with its off-kilter look and glass walls. You’ll see the nation’s smallest library that once thrilled readers in Vermont (but is now closed). America’s oldest library is in Darby, Pennsylvania – or so they claim. Many cities boast their own Carnegie libraries, including the once-segregated one in Louisville, Kentucky. Even Death Valley has a library.

There are Chinese books in the Flushing Library (NY), an African American History Library in Oakland (CA), and a tool lending library in Berkeley (CA). Central Library in Kansas City boasts a parking lot made of “books.” There are bookmobiles in this book, abandoned libraries that sit in the midst of nothing and those that are being re-claimed by nature, libraries in strip malls, and two that will make you smile: not even bad weather can keep us from our reading.

If ever there was a book for book lovers, “The Public Library” is it.

There’s a little bit of something for every bibliophile here: essays from beloved authors, a basic history of libraries, tales of non-book treasures, and a quick lesson in why we use the Dewey Decimal System. You’ll savor reader-affirmative anecdotes about libraries that stay open despite tiny budgets, bad weather, and dwindling resources.

You’ll see photographs of incredible artwork, including murals, paintings, and statuary; stunning architecture, neat-as-a-pin stacks (librarian-ese for rows of shelves), and too many heart-breaking ruins that once were the pride of neighborhoods.

This book is not an edge-of-your-seat must-read and it likely won’t ever see a bestseller list but it can righteously take its place in any personal library. For bookworms and lovers of literature, “The Public Library” is a book you should check out.