October 27, 2015 5:19 PM EDT

The Library of Congress announced Monday that it had acquired a collection of nearly 700 photographs taken by Robert Dawson of public libraries across the United States. Dawson has spent about two decades traversing the nation to document the wide range of forms and functions filled by libraries. The photographer’s survey “provided the perfect opportunity for the Library of Congress to represent the public library’s role in the 21st century,” said Helena Zinkham, the Library of Congress’ director for Collections and Services, in a statement. “His photographs also offer a fascinating comparison to our interior and exterior views of libraries newly built at the start of the 20th century.”

The acquisition of the photos also comes at a crucial time for libraries in America. As TIME explained in 2013, “From 2000 to 2010, public library visits increased 32.7%, partly owing to the influx of patrons during the recession. Meanwhile, overall library funding has decreased every year since 2009. Last year, libraries in 30 states cut hours because of budget constraints.”

Read more about the new world for public libraries, here in the TIME Vault: Smoked Stacks

Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com.

EDIT POST