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'The Global Library Project' is a Photographic Love Letter to the Written Word

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A small structure with corrugated iron roof. The outer wall is painted blue and decorated with the words 'Jungle Books' written in three languages.
Jungle Books Library, part of the Jungle refugee camp in Calais, France. The camp was demolished in October 2016, but its small library served as a bright spot in an otherwise bleak location. (The Global Library Project)

The Global Library Project is a stirring photography exhibit that acts as a love letter to librarians, to the written word, and to histories preserved. (That it’s on show at San Francisco’s main public library should come as no surprise.)

Photographer Robert Dawson‘s adoration for all things bibliophilic was previously documented in 2014’s The Public Library: A Photographic Essay book, in which he documented libraries across America. Now, in collaboration with his wife, photo historian Ellen Manchester, Dawson has begun documenting libraries around the world.

Librarians and volunteers stand outside the Children’s Library of Dnipro, Ukraine.

Whether it’s the palatial Wiblingen Library in Ulm, Germany, or an open air library for refugees in a downtrodden part of Tel Aviv, no library is off-limits for this San Francisco couple. In this new exhibit, on view through Nov. 13, Dawson and Manchester capture the warmth inside these community spaces and, frequently, the pride each institution has for its location. But the thing that truly elevates Dawson and Manchester’s work is their knack for presenting every library as essential and even sacred.

By expanding his scope beyond American borders, Dawson’s camera now carries the weight of old conflicts that have played out across European history. It’s clear throughout The Global Library Project that the battles beyond library walls can’t help but impact what’s inside them. One striking example from the Palestinian Nablus Public Library: a book with a cube neatly cut out of its center—a space where Palestinian people imprisoned in Israel could exchange personal notes and information. In Belgium, the charred remains of old books stand as a reminder of when Leuven’s Library of the Catholic University was burned to the ground by Nazis.

A long grand hall, with ornate pews and desks on both sides, separated by a walkway and white structural pillars.
The Malatestiana Library in Italy was built in 1454. Following medieval tradition, to this day it is lit entirely with natural light and all the books are secured to desks via chains. (SFPL Media Images)

Indeed, the fallout from World War II and the Nazi decimation of the Jewish people reoccurs in The Global Library Project. In Poland, we see synagogues that became libraries when there were no more Jews to frequent them. From Israel’s National Library, the story of a World War I veteran who kept a torah with him in a World War II concentration camp—disguised as his wooden leg. In Berlin, there’s The Empty Library—a memorial to the thousands of books lost to Nazi book burnings.


Sometimes, the libraries stand as symbols for what is no longer there. Today in Germany, for example, two libraries serve the exact same community. They are positioned close together because they were once separated by the Berlin wall. At Oświęcim—more commonly known as Auschwitz—Dawson and Manchester capture a library that makes no mention of the atrocities that took place there during the second world war. Though jarred by the erasure, the couple is careful to note: “The library was built to forget.”

A man and two women sit cross legged above a window built into the sidewalk. Brightly lit underneath them are rows and rows of white empty shelves. Behind them stands a grand old library building.
The Empty Library: Micha Ullman’s stark memorial stands on the site of a 1933 book burning outside Humboldt University’s Old Library. Its empty white shelves are large enough to hold the estimated 20,000 books burned by the Nazis. (SFPL Media Images)

Ultimately, Dawson and Manchester take the viewer on a fascinating trip that touches down in Canada, Russia, France, Greece, Italy, and even through the library ruins of Pompeii. Together, the resulting photographs make for a moving journey full of human resilience, intellect, and the determination it takes to document and catalog it all for future generations.

‘The Global Library Project’ is on display at San Francisco Main Library’s Jewett Gallery through Nov. 13. Exhibition details here

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