Noe Valley Voice May 2011

Robert Dawson Images: Of the Library, For the Library, In the Library

By Heather World 

In May and June, the Main Library will exhibit 70 works by Noe Valley photographer Robert Dawson, including this photograph, titled “Library Athenaeum, St. Johnsbury, Vermont.”    Photo courtesy Robert Dawson 

Robert Dawson, a Noe Valley photographer whose visual essays on water and agriculture have earned critical acclaim, will discuss his latest work, “Public Libraries: An American Commons,” at the Noe Valley/Sally Brunn Branch Library on Saturday, May 14, at 3 p.m.

From weathered trailer homes to elaborate 19th-century stone palaces, public libraries are a ubiquitous American resource, and in the hands of Dawson they also become art. His collection of 70 photographs is on display in the Main Library’s Jewett Gallery through June 12.

“It’s always been a back-burner project,” says the Noe Street resident. For 17 years, Dawson shot libraries on the side while traveling for grant-funded projects examining water use in the west, New Deal legacies, and Central Valley agriculture.

The work, however, is related.

“For me it seemed seamless,” says Dawson, 60, who teaches photography at Stanford and San Jose State universities. All his subjects involve overlooked but essential resources, he says.

“I can use photography to be engaged in these important issues and to bring attention to the things that are important.”

What he learned about libraries surprised him, he says.

“I started out thinking libraries are outdated and not used very much Wow, did I get my preconceptions blown away—they are packed, and a lot of it has to do with access to computers. The role of libraries is less about books and more about being a community center, partly the result of the digital revolution, he says. For some—especially those in poor rural communities—the library may be the only place to access the Internet, he says.

Dawson, who has had prints exhibited at the Museums of Modern Art in San Francisco and New York and in the Library of Congress, has spent plenty of time inside libraries, too.

“The particular branch library in Noe Valley is absolutely beautiful,” he says.

After the show in San Francisco, Dawson plans to round out his current photo collection by taking a “library pilgrimage” across the country this summer with his 21-year-old son. He is hoping the library series, like his previous subjects, will eventually become a book. For a sampling of his photographs, go to

The Noe Valley Library is located at 451 Jersey Street. On May 7, the Main Library will host an author-led gallery walkthrough of Dawson’s work and a panel discussion about San Francisco’s library architecture. Visit for more details.