Retiring library director isn't shy about speaking out He has been called influential in his field

July 01, 1996|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

With his glasses, thinning gray hair and pipe, Charles W. Robinson looks bookish enough to be just what he has been for the past 33 years -- director of Baltimore County's highly regarded library system.

But then the Howard Stern of Libraryland opens his mouth, and colorful comments spill out: "Inherent laziness makes me a wonderful delegator," or, "What I really hate about editorial writers and a good segment of the public is their sentimentality about libraries," he is apt to say.

"I don't worry about wearing the right clothes or saying the right thing, and I don't like people who are stuffy," the soon-to-retire Robinson said recently, wearing a red sport coat and puffing on his pipe in his Towson library office -- where smoking is illegal. "I can't change my style."

Style aside, Robinson has become a nationally known leader in the public library profession, preaching his gospel of "give 'em what they want" as the best way to get people to use libraries.

"Charlie is probably the most influential public librarian over the last 30 years," said George M. Needham, director of the Chicago-based Public Library Association.

Speaking to a group of public librarians, Robinson once said that "public libraries have no future" -- a guaranteed attention-getter. He meant that the growth of electronic information systems eventually may make most current library operations obsolete.

"Nobody in our field talked like that," Needham said, still chuckling at the memory. Librarians, he said, spoke so soothingly "that butter would melt in your mouth."

But not Robinson.

Comments that range from professionally shocking to personally outrageous spill out like Monocacy River water after a week of heavy rain. But unlike most flood victims, Robinson's verbal targets don't seem to bear a grudge.

Take, for example, Ginnie Cooper, director of the Multnomah County Library, which covers Portland, Ore., and its suburbs.

"He saw me at a conference once wearing a new winter coat and said, 'Oh, did you get fat again, or is it your coat?' He does offensive things and gets away with them," she said, adding that despite his comments she thinks "he's a really warm and wonderful person."

Born in China to American missionary parents, Robinson returned with them to the United States in 1941. He grew up in New England, where he attended college. After an Army stint during the Korean War, library school and a job in Philadelphia, he moved to Towson.

Now 67, he is retiring this summer, though he'll technically remain director until the Sept. 6 takeover by his successor, Jim Fish of San Jose, Calif.

Robinson's long-running act, backed by his 32-year "straight man," deputy director Jean Barry Molz, will be tough to follow. Ms. Molz, who is credited by some with "cleaning up" a few of Robinson's undiplomatic messes over the years, also is retiring this year.

Under the duo, Baltimore County's library operation grew from a small, mostly rural system circulating 2 million books a year to a sophisticated reading machine moving into the computer age that lent as many as 12 million items annually before recession-driven cutbacks closed eight mini-libraries and the Loch Raven branch in 1993.

Once a tiny auxiliary to the city's Enoch Pratt Free Library, the county system passed the Pratt in circulation before 1970 and now boasts of lending city residents more materials than does the Pratt.

Behind that growth was Robinson's credo, one he now says isn't new at all. The idea is merely to make libraries more like commercial bookstores, both in display and content, and get the newest, most popular materials as soon as bookstores do.

From Portland and Los Angeles to Boston and Philadelphia, library directors say they are awed by his achievements and influence and amused by most of what he says. The exception may be in Baltimore, where his comments about the fast-growing county system compared to the declining Pratt system sometimes rubbed raw nerves.

"He's been a national presence and a national leader for us as long as I can remember," said Susan Goldberg Kent, city librarian/director of the Los Angeles County library.

And despite his sometimes insulting manner, he can and does laugh at himself, she said.

The spry, hard-of-hearing director bakes bread at the office, prepares Thanksgiving lunch for 200 staff members each year, collects antiques and old cars, gossips over the phone, sleeps at professional meetings and says anything and everything he feels like, anytime.

Still, Robinson's message can get lost in the furor over his no-holds-barred approach.

"His way of projecting information can detract from the content," Molz said, adding that she has gotten along well with him because "I can give as good as I get."

Things definitely will be different when they're both retired, Molz said.

"It's going to be unusual not to have lunch with Charlie. I'll have a sense of nostalgia when I eat my peanut butter and jelly sandwich alone," she said.

Pub Date: 7/01/96

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