A library pioneer retires Baltimore County: Should libraries keep moving where Robinson has been taking them?

July 27, 1996

THE CHICAGO-BASED Public Library Association calls Charlie Robinson, the retiring director of the Baltimore County system, "the most influential public librarian of the last 30 years." This is not arguable, unlike Mr. Robinson's opinions. Since 1963 he has been the pioneer other systems have followed -- not just other Maryland systems, but libraries across the country.

He was the second librarian nationwide to use automated check-out. The transformation of the dusty-shelved library to a sophisticated reading machine is largely his doing. So is the notion that libraries should meet popular demands (a strategy that worked for him partly because the Pratt and university libraries satisfy research needs). These changes produced results: Baltimore County's is one of the busiest systems in the country, and libraries that imitated it are thriving, too.

And yet, the end of the Robinson era must be observed with

questions as well as tributes. Mr. Robinson espoused a pragmatic view of libraries: Give people the books they want to read, and expect to impose more fees and eliminate little-used branches because local governments have more important things on which to spend scarce tax dollars. How much further in this direction do we want libraries to move?

To ensure that libraries remain free, are we willing to pay more taxes to stock them and outfit them with electronic equipment, the cost of which is bankrupting libraries? Or, does it make more sense to ask patrons to pay for more of the services they use, even if that means the poor are denied access to information?

Traditional library types decry charging for anything or closing library branches, ever. This is not realistic. And the popularity of the system Mr. Robinson built proves that patrons are willing to pay, at least for "extras" like video rental. There is no reason why libraries shouldn't charge for ancillary services to keep basic services like book borrowing free for all. The problem is that ancillary charges alone may not be enough to do that if the NTC demand for and cost of electronic equipment keeps rising.

For as much as we value libraries, we ought to be willing to pay more taxes to keep basic library services free. Absent the willingness to do that, libraries have little choice but to follow where Mr. Robinson has been leading them.

Pub Date: 7/27/96

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