READING THE PUBLIC Charles Robinson writes the book on luring people to the library


Charles Robinson is having a good day.

Children are leaving the Towson Library with armloads of books. He returned from a two-week vacation to find his name mentioned frequently in an article on library leaders in Library Journal. And the most recent circulation figures for the Baltimore County Public Library system remain high, making it the second busiest public library system in the United States. As he lights up his ever-present pipe, the Baltimore County library director has a satisfied smile on his face.

At 62, Mr. Robinson has spent half his life with the county public library. Hired as assistant director in 1959, he became director in 1963 and has guided the library's transformation from a 50-employee organization with 10 branches to a 24-branch system with 700 employees.

And the library system has thrived under his leadership. Today, the only library system in the United States that lends more materials than Baltimore County is Queens, N.Y.

Five BCPL branches lent more than a million items last year, including Cockeysville, which is the busiest branch library in the United States with a circulation close to 1.4 million last year. According to circulation figures as of the end of October, the branch has checked out 170,000 more items than at this time last year.

The library system's success can be attributed to Mr. Robinson's "give-'em-what-they-want" theory.

"We buy books people want to read rather than books librarians think people should read," he says. "There's a big difference. The public successfully resists borrowing books they don't want to read, but librarians keep on buying the books anyway and then they keep on building bigger and bigger edifices to house the books that nobody wants to read."

His theory has received both criticism and praise from those in the field. John N. Berry, editor in chief of Library Journal, calls Mr. Robinson "one of the great innovators of our time," but argues that "educational institutions supported by taxes owe the community more than being a free bookstore. Is there no place in a tax-supported library to protect the classics?" he asks.

But Mr. Robinson points out, "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."

Claudia Miller, director of the Cuyahoga County, Ohio, library system, which serves the same size population as Baltimore County, describes Mr. Robinson as "iconoclastic. He prods other people to question their thinking about what a library system should be. Even those who don't follow what he says, listen to him and question their own procedures," she says.

Mr. Robinson is an unconventional librarian who never hesitates to speak his mind. "I say things in a controversial manner because that gets people's attention," he concedes.

Born in 1928 in Beijing, where his father served as a missionary and his mother was a nurse, he came to the United States in 1941.

He graduated from Colby College in Waterville, Maine, with a degree in government and economics and received a master's degree in library science from Simmons College in Boston. Two days after graduating from Simmons, Mr. Robinson was drafted into the Army and served in Korea, where he says he "successfully avoided being killed, which was my main objective at the time."

His first job following military service was with the Philadelphia Free Public Library as a reference librarian for the history, government and economics department. He realized quickly, however, that he wanted to be in library administration, and in 1959, he accepted the position of assistant director of the BCPL system.

He has lived in Lutherville with his wife, Martha, and son and daughter for 25 years and spends his free time restoring a 1938 Studebaker and traveling to England and Scotland. Yes, he's an avid reader, and he particularly enjoys books on British naval history.

Mr. Robinson was hired by the Baltimore County Board of Library Trustees -- seven citizens appointed by the Baltimore County executive for overlapping five-year terms. Roger B. Hayden, Baltimore county executive-elect, will have an opportunity to change the board's makeup in 1992 when the first vacancy occurs.

Michael Amann, president of the board of trustees, doesn't foresee any changes in the library's leadership. "We have complete confidence in Charles Robinson's abilities and the greatest respect for him as a manager. . . . He's built a tremendous team over the past years," he says.

Cockeysville branch manager Mary Kay LePage gives Mr. Robinson high grades as an administrator. "He lets you do your job and gives you freedom. He's a dynamic person who likes to try new things and is willing to listen to your opinions."

But, as Mr. Robinson stresses, "My real function most of the time seems to be finding enough money to support the services given to the public and making sure this money is spent responsibly and for the public's good."

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