For Robert Dawson and Ellen Manchester, libraries are a lens into communal life.
The husband-and-wife team from San Francisco, California, is currently in Israel for part of Dawson’s six-month stint as a Fulbright Global Scholar fellowship, an American cultural exchange program. They’re exploring and photographing libraries around the country, as well as in Italy and Greece.
“I’m not a librarian, but I’m a photographer and what I found is that libraries are more relevant now than ever,” said Dawson. “They’re more active than before, there are more people in libraries in the US than ever before, and more people checking out books than ever before.”
It’s a finding that runs counter to the general view that libraries are dying and disappearing, said Dawson. Instead, these places of book collections, story hours and quiet spaces seem to be more vital and active — less about books, perhaps, and more about community.
“They’re a point of pride, especially for smaller communities,” he said. “The library is part of what they identify as their home.”
For the last six weeks, Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem has been their professional home, and they’ve traveled north and south, exploring smaller and larger cities and libraries.
It’s one of many library journeys that Dawson, 68, and Manchester, 73, have taken in the US and the world. The two are working on a long-term Global Library Project, supported in part by the Fulbright.
Manchester is a nonprofit administrator, photography curator and environmental activist. Dawson is a photographer whose works are in the collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the National Museum of American Art. The Library of Congress purchased his entire archive of 680 prints, negatives, journals and related papers from the Public Library Project.
Their immersion in images of books and the places that house them stemmed from their interest in the natural environment, which is something they have both studied and explored.
“The environment is something we all share and it’s under threat — and there are other types of things we share, and libraries are part of that, they’re part of our environment,” said Dawson.
With the US having 17,000 libraries, the couple focused on community libraries for Dawson’s book, “The Public Library: A Photographic Essay” (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014), which took 18 years of research.
And they’re still exploring.
“It took me 18 years because I had to figure out what the heck I was doing with this,” added Dawson.
Their stay in Israel has included much time spent at the National Library, which acted as their host in Israel, helping them figure out which libraries would be helpful to see and making contact with relevant places and people.
The pair spent time in community, school and university libraries around Tel Aviv, Nazareth and Jerusalem, including a library in the Al Aqsa Mosque, where mothers and toddlers were sitting together and reading books, said Dawson.
“That’s part of the discovery for us, to discover the libraries, wherever they are, and move mountains to get in there,” he said.
Their Israeli library journey included seeing simple community center libraries, soaring architect-designed libraries, and street libraries like one created for refugees in Tel Aviv — even one at the beach.
“We have to keep prioritizing, we have to get through our list but so much comes up while we’re here on the ground,” said Manchester.
Next summer, once they’re home, the pair will sit down with the photographs and “something kind of becomes real,” said Dawson, “rather than my preconceptions. It’s like I’m learning from the photographs, they provide a reality and in some ways, I trust that. That is how I do these projects.”
The publications that emerge from this trip may end up as idea-based books, said Manchester, with each one based on the subjects generated by different kinds of libraries in the various places they visited during the course of the Fulbright.
Back in 2016, they went to northern and Eastern Europe, discovering that World War II and the Holocaust were paramount in Polish libraries, and expanding their search to university and private libraries in order to better understand their role in the communities.
Germany had a very vigorous public library system, often used by refugees as a place to learn about local systems and fill out paperwork, while Italy was rich with beautiful old libraries as well as small community gems, like the Torino Alpine Club.
They worked with organizations such as Libraries Without Borders, which has placed libraries in places like laundromats.
“Sometimes it’s the library, sometimes it’s the librarian,” said Manchester of their journeys. “This is Bob’s perception of what this library is, or one picture that will encapsulate the story of that place.”
Renowned nature photographer Ansel Adams was a mentor for Dawson, imparting his commitment to the environment and to helping younger photographers, often over drinks on Friday afternoons.
One of Dawson’s major projects was “The Water in the West Project,” a collaborative project he co-founded with Manchester and eleven photographers that addressed water issues in the American West.
Their library project followed, and in recent years, they’ve also been spending considerable time in Stockton, California, where they found low literacy rates, a struggling library and education system, and a number of heroic people.
“Libraries are a road trip of exploration,” said Manchester.
On Sunday, February 17, at 6:30 p.m., Dawson will present “Library Road Trip: Photographing U.S. and European Libraries,” a free talk and slide show at the National Library that is open to the public (with preregistration).