Library Road Trip

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The following blog entries were taken from photographer Robert Dawson's blog Photos reprinted with person of author. Photos within Yazoo City post taken by photographer Walker Dawson.

Join me and my son, Walker, as we drive across the country this summer photographing public libraries. Our trip will complete 17 years of field work documenting this precious American resource.

Yazoo City and the Mississippi Delta

7/13/11 – The library in Yazoo City, MS is one of the most amazing libraries on the trip. We wanted to spend the whole day here but I limited it to about 2 1/2 hours. Built in 1900 the interior of the B.S. Ricks Memorial Library is both stunning and old, spacious yet small, a keeper of local history but also filled with people using computers. The local historian and librarian [John E. Ellzey] was like Shelby Foote in Ken Burn’s Civil War series. He made Yazoo City’s history come alive. All the floods, fires, and local citizens became significant to us through John’s beautiful Southern voice. He even told the story of the 19th Century witch that cast a curse on the town before the citizens killed her. The curse came true when the town burned on the day she predicted. He then introduced me to an older, distinguished looking woman who convincingly performs the historical role of the witch to local groups. She took Nick and Walker out to lunch and introduced them to the local town leaders and newspaper reporters. I stayed and continued to photograph all aspects of the Ricks library. We drove from one of the best libraries of the trip to the Tchula library in the poorest country in the poorest state in the nation. The library was open but the lights were off and the AC had been broken for a year. The librarian was very nice but it was stifling inside. We drove on to Belzoni which calls itself the Catfish Capitol of the World and has the highest rate of childhood poverty in the U.S. The whole town has colorful catfish sculptures but the librarian said most of the catfish production is gone. Belzoni was also the site of bitter civil rights struggles in the 1950s and 60s. Known as “Bloody Belzoni” for the uninvestigated and unsolved murders of civil rights pioneers. Despite the poverty it elected its first African American Mayor in 2006. In the tiny town of Arcola the African American librarian was excited to pose in front of the library. When she smiled, her gold grill sparkled. Greenville and Leland showed us two Mississipppis. One black and poor and one white and relatively well off. As the sky darkened with an approaching thunderstorm we drove into the small Delta town of Indianola, home of B B King.

7/14/11 – We continued to photograph small Mississippi Delta libraries. The Shaw and Moorhead libraries were really interesting and typical of the area. Itta Bena is the birthplace of B B King. I entered the small library and struck up a conversation with the two older African American women working there. Because they were of a certain age I asked if either of them knew B B King. One woman’s eyes lit up and said that when he was a boy his mother used to party a lot on the weekends. As a result he would stay with them and this librarian knew him pretty well. I photographed the other librarian, a Rosa Parks poster and two kids standing in front of the library. The small, poor town of Sunflower has an abandoned library that has stood empty for a number of years. Surrounded by forests and invading plants it possessed a quiet, desolate beauty. The Shelby library is located in an old train depot. As I was photographing a man in a truck pulled up and engaged me in a wonderful conversation about my project and the local bank. Later, an older farmer pulled up and wants me to photograph his three legged dog standing in the back of his pickup. Tutweiler’s main economy is based on the Mississippi State Penitentiary, one of the most brutal in the country. As we saw in Oklahoma, California is shipping its excess prisoners here. The nearby casino has actually drawn away jobs from the community, one of the poorest in the country. Surprisingly, the Tutweiler library had columns in front and was in much better shape than the surrounding town. Due to the high unemployment in the area everywhere we see unemployed men sitting around playing dominoes and drinking all day. The only stores opened were liquor or convenience stores. Some of what we see we imagine looks like poor, rural Africa. It is not surprising that blues music was born here. We spent the night in Clarksdale. For dinner we went to the famous Ground Zero Blues Club, started by Morgan Freeman. My Delta Catfish dinner was amazing and then the band started to play. We were all blown away by the incredible range of talent we heard on stage. The lead guitarist was awesome. The nearby Blues Museum has a special program to train talented local kids to play the blues. People of all ages came on stage and rocked the place. I can’t remember ever having more fun in a funky blues bar. I said to Nick “This sure beats blogging.” But true to form we get back to our motel and spend the next couple of hours working away.

Philadelphia, PA and the Farm

7/31/11 – The Fishtown branch library in Philadelphia is special. As I am photographing outside an old biker-looking guy came over and explained that his mother helped save the library from becoming a parking lot for the nearby police station. When the library was rededicated the mayor of Philadelphia came over and offered to give his mother a ride in his limo. She refused choosing to walk the one block instead. Classic! The Kensington branch was in one of the diciest neighborhoods of the trip. My medium format color camera had died in the heat of Detroit. Because this had to be a color photograph I had to photograph with the slow 4X5 camera. Walker hovered protectively and watched my back as I went under the dark cloth. Tough looking guys were beginning to gather on all corners of the street as I quickly took the photo and jumped back in the car. We skipped another library in this same rough neighborhood and drove to The Free Library of Philadelphia. This massive, elegant Main library was also a little faded. I spent three hours photographing its beauty and the content of its character. Ellen was back in our hotel working on another Kickstarter blast to help keep this project funded. Walker and I drove over to Camden, New Jersey to photograph their closed Main Library. Camden is one of the few large cities in the country to close its entire library system. It has had a tough time recently with economic collapse and a famously corrupt city government. We saw the results of this in the closed library.

8/1/11 – As we had breakfast with our friend Stuart Rome and his family Walker took a bus to New York to hunt for an apartment for next year. Ellen and I made a quick stop in down-and-out Newark, NJ. I took what may be two good, quick shots of the exterior and then headed north to beat the traffic. We got past New York City and encountered an epic thunder and lightning storm near Waterbury, Connecticut. I skipped the library there and later we had to pull off the road to let this mega-storm pass. The last library I photographed in the fading light was in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. This was where our dear friend Leslie grew up. This small, patrician New England town was also part of the 19th Century Underground Railroad. It seemed appropriate to end this part of the  project here. We then drove several more hours to our little cabin in the Vermont woods that we call the Farm arriving at 11 PM. Exhausted but happy I looked back on this amazing journey. We had photographed over 180 public libraries in 39 days. We visited 19 states and drove 9,450 miles. I will continue to photograph libraries in New England and New York over the next three weeks. But arriving at the Farm was the end of the big, non-stop push. We are off the grid at the Farm but I will continue to post blogs intermittently from the Howe Public Library in Hanover, New Hampshire. This is considered one of the best small public libraries in the country and Ellen’s family from the area has been heavily involved with the library. Walker and I both feel very positive about our public library system throughout the country despite the many problems. We will write more about these insights in the next few weeks. We also feel very positive about our country despite its problems. Most of the folks we met were hard-working people that loved their public libraries. In our divisive country this is one this we can all share.

The End of the Library Road Trip

8/16/11 – The final leg of the library road trip started in the rain at the Farm in Vermont. We were finishing this epic journey by photographing four libraries in New England. We were also driving Walker down to New York City to begin his junior year in college. Just as we arrived in Laconia, NH the rain stopped. I photographed the amazing Gale Memorial Library there. It had a great display on local summer stock theater as well as striking architecture. I had feared that the rain would return and stop my photography of the fascinating exterior. Fortunately, it really was stopped for the rest of the day. Ellen had spent her childhood summers in this area and we visited several places that brought back strong memories for her along the way. The Samuel A. Wentworth Library at Center Sandwich, NH was a delight. We didn’t think that we would have time to photograph it and it turned out to be an eccentric surprise in this remote part of New Hampshire. We continued east past the Presidential Range Mountains and thickly wooded forests into Maine. We stayed with our wonderful friend Jacqui Koopman who lives near Portland, ME. We had so many stories from this trip that we stayed up to the wee hours telling only a few of them.

8/17/11 – I photographed only one library in Maine but it was a good one. After I explained my project to the friendly librarian in Gardiner she said that I should do a whole project just on Maine libraries. It dawned on me that I probably should do a more in-depth study of libraries in all fifty states. It is just time and money. With enough of each I could do it. The library in Gardiner kept me busy for over an hour and a half but eventually I pulled myself away. We drove for many hours to my last library of the summer. The Pollard Memorial Library in Lowell, MA was a great one to end the library road trip. I had always wanted to photograph here because this was the home town of writer Jack Kerouac. Apparently, he skipped a lot of school to spend time among the stacks of this library. Local legend has it that he was also found passed out in the stacks later in his life. This Civil War memorial library was filled with huge murals of Lee’s Surrender at Appomattox and General Grant in the battlefield. The library also contained a huge Chinese Vase and stunning interior architecture. While Walker and Ellen checked their iPhones in the library I went outside to finish with a few shots of the incredible exterior in the late afternoon light. Lowell is known for its closed 19th century cotton mills and its large Cambodian-American  and African-American population. The streets were teeming with people as the warm evening approached. I began to attract some attention on the street so I texted Walker to come out and watch my back. I took the last photos and we drove on to stay with Ellen’s sister near Boston. The following day we drove to Walker’s new apartment in Brooklyn. We had dinner that night at a Uighur restaurant in Brighton Beach after driving through an awesome thunder and lightning storm. Our final night on the East Coast was spent enjoying my birthday dinner with our dear friends Stanley and Lynn. At the same time we watched another torrential downpour outside. This last post was written as Ellen and I were flying back to San Francisco while Walker moves in to his new place in Bushwick. This trip has produced many great experiences and, I hope, great photographs of public libraries across the country. I photographed 189 libraries in 26 states and the District of Columbia. We were on the road for 58 days while driving 11,123 miles. Our Kickstarter funding campaign on the web succeeded in raising more than our $8,000 goal from friends and strangers alike. I am very excited about going home to develop all of my film. In the next few weeks I will begin to see what were the results of this extraordinary trip. I will post the greatest hits from the summer over the next few months. Thank you for reading my blog and for your interest in my project. I hope you enjoyed this wild ride as much as we did. Please stay in touch. I will keep you posted as I develop the next big phase of this project which will be the book. Stay tuned.