Jim Fish closes the book on career at Baltimore County Public Library

Jim Fish led library system since 1996

  • Jim FIsh, 67, recently retired as Director of the Baltimore County Library after almost 18 years. He is pictured here in the Towson Library, where his office was located.
Jim FIsh, 67, recently retired as Director of the Baltimore… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
July 31, 2014|By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun

Jim Fish had a knack for management from a young age, former colleagues say — and in his 43 years as a professional librarian, he never worked as anything but a library director.

The longtime administrator of the Baltimore County Public Library stepped down last month, having witnessed many changes in library technology — and in American society itself. When he began his adult career more than four decades ago, people still used card catalogs. There were no Kindles or other e-readers. And people didn't visit the library for all the reasons they do today.

"People are different," Fish, 67, said. "Lifestyles change."

The Cockeysville resident left at the end of June after 18 years with the county system, having started in 1996. Fish, who colleagues say was adept at managing others and at budgeting, was able to expand library hours so that every branch is open on Sundays all year long. He also opened four new facilities and reopened two branches — in Loch Raven and Lansdowne — that had closed in the early 1990s.

The Leominster, Mass., native counts the library's work on early childhood services among his most important accomplishments. Under Fish, Baltimore County's library system launched Storyville, an interactive "child-sized village" for babies and young kids designed to encourage early literacy, in two branches.

"He really saw early on the critical need in Baltimore County to provide services and resources for ages birth to preschool," said Mary Hastler, director of the Harford County library system, who previously served as associate director for the Baltimore County library. "It's become very vital in many communities."

Fish is set to be replaced in early August by Paula Miller, who was previously director of the Pikes Peak Library District in Colorado.

He worked as a page shuttling and mending books at his hometown library in high school, but as a student at the University of Massachusetts, Fish thought he'd enter law school. He eventually was drawn to the service aspect and variety of library work and earned a master's degree from the Indiana University Bloomington School of Library and Information Services.

His first stint as a library director, in Gardner, Mass., came when he was just a few years out of college. After working at other systems in Massachusetts, he went to San Jose, Calif., in 1990, where he was the city librarian until 1996.

He was an admirer of his predecessor in Baltimore County, Charlie Robinson. The county system was known as being cost-effective and responsive to patrons, he said.

"I was in San Jose enjoying a great climate, and [Robinson] announced his retirement," Fish said. "So I applied, and things fell into place."

Fish said he was able to expand hours and open new facilities in Baltimore County through the use of technology and finding efficiencies.

For instance, self-kiosk checkouts have helped cut costs so personnel time can be redirected elsewhere. The library also has a "floating collection" in which an item does not belong to one specific branch, but instead travels throughout the system so a patron can return it to any branch.

"He was really astute with the funding and understood it probably better than anyone else I've ever worked with," Hastler said.

Molly Fogarty, now director of the Springfield City Library in Massachusetts, said Fish had a talent for managing others even at a young age. She worked with him for about a decade, starting in the early 1980s.

"He really inspires people who work for him," said Fogarty, who was a branch manager when she worked with Fish. "A lot of people wanted to work in Springfield because he was there."

It was a time of great technological change for libraries, she said.

"He was there when we went from card catalogs to automation, so we're talking major shifts in how libraries provided information," she said.

Fish followed a philosophy of "give them what they want," which was a new concept for libraries back then, Fogarty said.

"A lot of libraries felt, 'we know better than the community,' " she said.

The library system saw some controversy at the end of Fish's tenure, with a dispute between the library board of trustees and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's plan to transfer some library IT positions to the county's Office of Information Technology.

Fish, who is married with two grown children, says he is now looking forward to traveling in retirement, including a trip to Ireland later this summer.

Of course, reading is also in his future. He's a fan of nonfiction and history. Among his favorite books is "Nicholas and Alexandra," the story of the last Russian royal family, which he likes to read every few years.

"If you love to read and you love books, working at a library can be very frustrating — because you can't keep up with it all," Fish said.

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