Public Library: An American Commons

Posting to NGC4LIB

I watched a public lecture by Robert Dawson given at San Francisco Public Library for the opening of a photographic exhibition “Public Library: An American Commons” and it is just wonderful. I found it moving. I also discovered a slideshow at

Mr. Dawson has been photographing all kinds of libraries around the country for the last 15 or 20 years and some of his photos are great. The spaces are always interesting, and in short, Mr. Dawson is obviously a great lover of libraries so I appreciate his artistry.

What becomes clear from his work though, is how widespread the smaller public libraries are. It provoked me into look up some statistics. According to “Public Libraries in the United States: Fiscal Year 2008” by the Institute of Museum and Library Services it turns out that in public libraries, 56.6% have less than five FTE staff, while 72% have less than 10 FTE. (This assumes that I am reading everything correctly, but I believe I am. p. 94) Of course, these statistics are from 2008, before the economic meltdown, so we can assume even smaller levels of staffing today.

I am sure that these libraries are having a very difficult time. The huge changes in information are hitting all libraries, but especially those with small staffs, who now have to do more and more with less and less. While larger libraries may lose staffing, when you have 3 staff and you lose one, that’s a loss of 1/3. There are so many things that could be done to help these small libraries and their patrons with open source and open access, by building tools that would really help everyone, but we seem to be concentrating on other tasks. When I look at some of those people in these photos, I think: how is RDA supposed to help them? How are they supposed to deal with it? What will they get in return? Many in those small libraries are probably too busy with other matters and will just ignore RDA until it hits them like a tornado or tsunami. Unfortunately, we still have seen no business case justifying what will clearly be sacrifices on the part of many.

In this talk and slideshow are some of the faces and places.