Photographs Tell the Tale of Libraries

Mantra Roy /

Soulac, France Library via Michael Porter (libraryman) on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0     In recognition of the role of libraries in social, intellectual, and community life, famous photographers have spent years bearing witness to this institution that continues to form the foundation of democracies around the world.

     Robert Dawson, in his most recent book, Public Libraries: An American Commons (2014), put together his collection of photographs of public libraries, small and large, active and defunct, urban and rural, as a testimony to the institution’s role as a shared space for American society. From the small shed holding books in the Death Valley National Library to the magnificent San Francisco library - the range of photographs Dawson gathered during 18 years of travel around the United States captures the spirit of the much threatened institution. As librarians we will admire Dawson's salute to the library. Click here and select ‘Public Libraries: An American Commons,’ the top title in his portfolio list.

     Ahmet Ertug in Temples of Knowledge: Libraries of the Western World (2009) documents 30 historical public libraries across Europe, including the countries of Spain, Portugal, and Czech Republic. From the Oval Room in the National Library of France to the gorgeous Royal Library of the Monastery of El Escorial, Spain, Ertug uses his camera to document the  beauty, wisdom, and timelessness of this venerable institution. Click here for a view of the beautiful libraries.

     Will Pryce's The Library: A World History (2013) is yet another photographer’s testimony to the architectural beauty of the institution, although few, if any, library from low-income or underprivileged neighborhood or region is included. While the white marble, the Japanese oak panels, the one-person desks with adjacent windows depict the privileges that could sanction and afford such architecture, these buildings have nevertheless been repositories of knowledge, encouraging and deepening one's love for information and wisdom. 

     Just as only book collections do not comprise a library, a beautiful building by itself does not offer the sanctuary that a library provides. Depending on the economic condition of the time, the artistic talents available, and the resources to build book collections, libraries around the world and through centuries have either commanded palatial buildings or wooden sheds. The purpose - to offer a public institution for "private memory" (Toni Morrison) - has remained and continues to remain the same.