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Through the lens of his camera
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Some people look at a library and just see books.

Robert Dawson sees hope.

The Stanford University photography instructor is spending a year chronicling the efforts of the library system and Literacy Foundation of San Joaquin County “to bring literacy and hope to a troubled place.”

Dawson  was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for his project to examine Stockton — the second  largest city in the United States to declare bankruptcy that is also one of the least literate  places in the country — and surrounding communities and their efforts to improve  literacy.

So far he has photographed a wide repertoire of literacy efforts — ranging from Stockton Councilman Michael Tubb’s book club for young people to migrant farm workers’ children intensively hitting the books at French Camp School.

“They’re incredibly focused,” Dawson told Manteca Rotarians of the migrant students on Thursday during a meeting at Ernie’s restaurant. “They know how important their education is.”

Dawson is no stranger to libraries or the Central Valley.

His book “The Public Library:  A Photographic Essay” is the end result of scouring libraries in 50 states. The book has a forward by journalist Bill Moyer and an afterword by author Ann Patchett. He also produced what many consider to be the definitive photo essay book on the Sacramento-San Joaquin valleys titled “The Great Central Valley: California’s Heartland.”

Some of the observations he shared with Rotarians of libraries that he photographed for his previous book include:

• people access libraries for more things than books as evidenced by photographs shot of the busy Berkeley tool lending library.

• libraries are often the only gathering point in small communities and are highly valued as such with libraries in free-standing buildings often as small as a typical bedroom.

• libraries range from a barebones structure with the additional protection of a shade stricture in Death Valley to the opulent Seattle Public Library that makes more of an architectural statement than being an efficient depository of bocks.

• many libraries are also places where art is displayed reflecting the community’s heritage.

• libraries aren’t easily defined given that the original Andrew Carnegie Library also included a swimming pool and gym.

• libraries are the only option many struggling low-income people have to learn critical computer skills or access the Internet for job searches as underscored by a photo he shot of a Chicago library jammed with people using computers.

• libraries are central to men being free and being able to acquire knowledge as noted by the care given to the library built by settlers of Allensworth a black utopia community established in the San Joaquin Valley  near Earlimart after the Civil War that is now  a state park.

• libraries are of equal importance in conservative communities as they are in liberal enclaves.

• the structures housing libraries  range from storefronts to free-standing sweeping edifices that flow seamlessly into outdoor spaces such as the much heralded Salt Lake City Public Library to a library opened in a  former strip club.