For much of the past three decades, the folks who run the Baltimore County Public Library have adhered to a simple slogan: Give 'em what they want.
Don't give people what conventional library wisdom deems they should have -- primarily fine literature and research material. Instead "give 'em" what they want to borrow -- classics, sure, but mainly popular titles, children's books, audio and video tapes, compact discs. And easy parking.
No library professional in the country has been a more vocal advocate of this philosophy -- nor more celebrated and more criticized for it -- than Charles Robinson, the director of the county system since 1963. When Mr. Robinson joined the system as an assistant director in 1959, it had 10 small branches. These days the system has 16 large, full-service branches and nine smaller "satellite" outlets. It routinely posts some of the highest circulation figures in the nation. Only the Queens, N.Y., and Los Angeles County library systems circulate more books yearly than Baltimore County does. And in terms of annual per-capita circulation, Baltimore County is topped only by Queens.
Why then, with so much to smile about, is the 64-year-old director frowning between puffs on his ubiquitous pipe? Why is he riling people with his recently reported suggestion to lay a fee on library users from outside the county? Why is he given to such gloomy pronouncements as "This library system has a disease, like creeping cancer"?
Why indeed? That's the $64,000 question. Or rather the $1 million question. The county government must cut some $25 million from its budget this year, which means, in Mr. Robinson's estimate, the library system will take a $1 million hit.
What has happened is that the Robinson mantra of "Give 'em what they want" has collided with County Executive Roger Hayden's mantra about governments needing to down-scale to balance their budgets. Mr. Robinson, conceding the point, says libraries could even slip down the priority list if the budgets of the county education, police and fire departments keep getting slashed.
He says he has ways to absorb his cut, none of them easy. Does he order furloughs? It would be a tough call after library workers endured 10 furlough days last year. Does he act on his idea to charge non-residents for using the system? Not likely, since that looks to be little more than a trial balloon or a distress signal to the county government.
Or does he, very reluctantly, reduce hours at some branches? Baltimore's Enoch Pratt library system, he argues, is "a shell of its former self" precisely because it has temporarily closed or cut hours at certain branches just to maintain the appearance of being intact. That's an example he'd rather not follow.
Yet, pondering the Pratt's difficulties, Mr. Robinson frets that his system could soon be in similar straits. The county library's budget has held steady at about $20 million over the past five years, but it hasn't kept pace with inflation.
For example, while the county system's book budget has remained largely unchanged, books are more expensive. The system purchased 20 percent fewer books last year than the year before. "The public doesn't initially feel a cut in the book budget," Mr. Robinson explains. "But over the years, they stop coming to the library because they notice they have more and more trouble finding the books they want."
Still, the director says he's hopeful of still running an operation that meets his criteria for a good library system -- one that offers books people want, ample parking, a good staff and the latest high-tech tools, such as computer data bases and fax transmissions of information between branches. To do all this -- to find a cure for the "creeping cancer" of regular budget cuts -- would require trimming the system to 10 large branches, Mr. Robinson says.
It's an approach that could gain acceptance in the commuter-culture county. Suburbanites probably wouldn't mind driving 10 extra minutes to another library if their local branch closed. The situation is different in the city, where the libraries are more neighborhood-rooted. The inevitable public uproar over each suggestion of a Pratt closing shows how hard it would be to consolidate the city's libraries.
Charles Robinson thinks compromise won't be so tough to win in Baltimore County.
"There are good and bad compromises," he says, "but there are compromises that will maintain our library system in a healthy way."
Patrick Ercolano is The Sun's Baltimore County editorial writer.