Book Review: The Public Library

The Public Library, a photographic essay by Robert Dawson

When I was going to the public library recently to pick up a book that had been on hold for a while, I saw a library display nearby that had books relating to public libraries, and looking for some quick and easy books to read and review before traveling on a long trip where obtaining and reading books would be considerably more difficult than usual, I picked this book and one other book up to look at.  I must say that my thoughts on this book are deeply ambivalent.  The photos in the book are lovely and often poignant, as the author did a great job of seeking a wide variety of past and present libraries to photograph.  Yet this poignancy, and the fact that the book was obtained at a public library, cannot erase the deep and unsettling and hostile feelings I have towards the book’s worldview as a whole.  Being no stranger to libraries [1], I nonetheless find the reflections contained in the book to be deeply problematic, in that it ties the support of libraries to a radical leftist political worldview, which would directly threaten their viability in a world of increasing austerity in public budgets and partisan warfare.

In terms of its content, this book consists of almost 200 pages of photographs of American public libraries along with a variety of essays and reflections on the value of the public library written mostly by bitter and irate lefitsts divided into seven chapters, along with a foreword, introduction, and afterword.  The photos are divided into themes of the American public library (1), economics (2), civic memory and identity (3), urban and rural libraries (4), art and architecture (5), evolving libraries (6), and literature and learning (7).  Perhaps unsurprisingly, not only are the photos often deeply moving, and sometimes more than a little sad, as well as sometimes beautiful, but the essay as a whole (and this is especially true of the discussions) has a big agenda that is clumsily handled.  By and large, the authors seem to fail to recognize a few areas of importance that make the library’s current case so critical.  For one, libraries were built largely in towns with a solid middle class, and where libraries are failing spectacularly it is due to the presence of too many poor and minorities who do not provide the tax base to keep up with such infrastructure, especially in a period where libraries are more expensive to keep up because of the technological infrastructure involved.

It is my belief that public libraries can only thrive in a set of circumstances that does not appear to be the case any longer.  For one, the support of libraries must be seen as a community priority and not a partisan one.  To insult those who are right of center as being hostile to the education of people and to view libraries as a place where leftist ideals can be promoted only makes libraries a target for budget-conscious leaders with political axes to grind.  The authors in this collection would have done well to tone down the anti-religious and anti-conservative rhetoric in this book had they desired the well-being of library systems around the country.  In addition to this, the authors praise the evolution of libraries but do not seem to recognize that having fiscally robust communities is necessary for the preservation of infrastructure, including that of public libraries.  Obviously those communities do not exist in areas where white flight from racial violence and politically leftist governments has taken place, and so what we have are people whining that they have been unable to maintain what previous generations have provided in terms of library infrastructure and expectations but do not want to accept their part of the blame for it.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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