The director of the Baltimore County...


November 17, 1990|By Theo Lippman Jr.

CHARLES ROBINSON, the director of the Baltimore County Public Library, said last week, "the last time I checked we had 63 copies of 'The Odyssey.' "

Uh oh. Last time I checked, he had 150 copies. Classical thievery?

I checked in 1979. Elliot Shelkrot, who was then an assistant to Robinson at the BCPL, was quoted as saying he wouldn't hire a librarian who believed in keeping an unpopular classic like "The Odyssey" on the shelves. This became sort of a metaphor for the battle between Robinson and most librarians.

Most believed libraries are for important stuff -- and that Robinson's belief in giving the public what it wanted meant trashy best-sellers. His quote above was his latest rebuttal to that. Here it is in context:

"A lot of people think that because your circulation is high, you must be circulating best sellers and trash. But that's not true. We buy 8,000 titles a year, and less than 200 of them are best sellers. The last time I checked, we had 63 copies of 'The Odyssey' in 13 translations."

That's subject to two interpretations. So I called him to ask if he now sided with the traditionalists. He said he did not, nor was he influenced by "the well-meaning idiocies of editorial writers" when it came to book buying. He still believes the public's tastes come first.

Not only is Robinson not changing his views, the profession appears to be moving in his direction. Big city libraries like the Pratt were the citadels of the traditional approach. But the Pratt has moved in the direction of listening to its public more in the past 11 years, and so have other big city libraries. Shelkrot is now head of Philadelphia's libraries. Another former assistant to Robinson, Ron Dubberly, is running Atlanta's.

And another former BCPL librarian, Nora Rawlinson, is the new editor of Library Journal. That is really a case of the barbarians breaching the gate of the inner sanctum! The Journal has long been the Bible of the quality-not-popularity set. The editor Rawlinson replaced is John Berry, who has led the attack on the Robinsonites for years.

When I say the Pratt has moved closer to Robinson's position, I don't mean it has stopped being the kind of library people that I and you, Gentle Reader, prefer. It is still a great, serious research resource.

For example, recently I asked Bob Burke in the Central Pratt's Social Science and History Department if they might have a copy of some Senate hearings in 1939. "No problem." I soon had precisely what I needed. 1939. That department's chief, Marva Belt, informs me that as a U.S. Government Depository Library, the Pratt still gets almost everything the feds print.

By the way, Charlotte Gettes of the Pratt's Humanities Department tells me they have 30-odd copies of "The Odyssey" at the Central, 40-odd in the branches and, in addition to several English translations, also have the work in Spanish, French, Hebrew and, "of course," Greek.

The BCPL is a fine library. I like it. But I * the Pratt.

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