Charles W. Robinson, Keeping the Public in Public Libraries

Charles Robinson in1996, the year he retired as  Director of BCPL.  Credit: Sean Kief

Charles Robinson in1996, the year he retired as Director of BCPL.
Credit: Sean Kief

It seemed sadly fitting that, as the successful PLA Conference was in full swing in Denver, news arrived that Charles W. Robinson, former director of Baltimore County Public Library (BCPL), had died. Many of us had felt his absence at the conference, even as his ideas about public service continued to be fundamental to most of the meetings and conversations.

Charles relished getting together with colleagues at PLA. He enjoyed nothing more than taking a contrarian point of view and then proclaiming he “didn’t give a rat’s ass” if others agreed, all the while doing his level best to change their minds.

He was a bundle of contradictions. A man who passionately advocated for serving the people, he didn’t suffer fools gladly and would have been a disaster on a public service desk. Ready to go with his gut and implement any idea that struck him as smart, he also believed in long-range planning, creating and following dozens of carefully thought-out multiple-year plans. A strong believer in the intelligence of the library staff (one of his favorite sayings was “never try to bullshit the staff”) and in the importance of training and recognizing achievements, he was personally anything but warm and fuzzy.

One of his major achievements was to get local government to understand the importance of libraries, launching persuasive arguments based on data. He taught other directors to do the same and helped establish PLA’s Output Measures for Public Libraries, Planning and Role Setting for Public Libraries and the annual Public Library Data Service, Statistical Report. 

After his retirement, Charles continued his influence as the editor of Library Administrator’s Digest, a roundup of news along with his inimitable comments, a monthly dose of Charles.

But it’s the personal memories of Charles that can be the most revealing. I have dozens, but the one that made the biggest impression occurred even before I met him. He hired me without an interview, based solely on my letter of application. Trying desperately to distinguish myself from crowds of applicants (under the influence of What Color is Your Parachute?), I wrote about my part-time job in the U. of Michigan Undergraduate Library’s Fines and Overdues Department, saying I particularly liked trying to help students work their way through our often draconian rules. I even bragged that one student I  helped not only sent a check for his overdue fines (thus allowing him to get his degree on time), but a separate check for me, to buy myself a beer to thank me for my efforts.

Charles read the letter and immediately yelled to the Human Resources Director, “Hire her!” When I got the call, I couldn’t quite believe it, but figured a place that could make decisions like that was a place I wanted to work. I took the job sight unseen.

When I joined BCPL, I thought I was lucky to get a job, little did I know I was embarking on a profession that became, as it did for Charles, a lifelong obsession.

I would love to hear your memories of Charles (by the way, while the rest of the profession knew his as “Charlie,” those of us who worked with him called him by his more formal name). Please enter them in the comments section below.

Donations can be made in Charles’s name to:

The Foundation for the Baltimore County Public Library 320 York Road, Towson MD 21204

Church of the Holy Comforter,130 W. Seminary Ave, Lutherville, MD 21093

Plans are under way for a celebration of Charles’s life at ALA Annual in Orlando, Fla.

2 Responses to “Charles W. Robinson, Keeping the Public in Public Libraries”

  1. Carolyn Anthony Says:

    I worked for Charles Robinson from 1978-1985 and I know he had a considerable influence on me and my professional development. Charles lived his belief that librarians have a responsibility to the profession as well as to the library employing them. Because of his example, I have been active in the Public Library Association throughout my career and have looked to give back to the profession.
    He also believed in teamwork with vendors, that librarians should assist vendors in developing products optimally designed for use in public libraries and he had several vendors he regarded as colleagues.
    Both of these views have shaped my values and actions as a public library administrator.

  2. Ron Dubberly Says:

    Charles W. Robinson was a “populist librarian”, effectively dedicated to ensuring the public’s access to content which met their needs – as defined by the users. He preached – and successfully practiced – what I call “responsive excellence”.

    Charlie also was a values-driven pragmatist. He adroitly maneuvered through the minefields of local politics and budgeting to extract the most advantageous terms practical for BCPL.

    His innovations included early risk-taking adoption of emerging library-related technologies.

    He was a great – and, sometimes, exacting – mentor to numerous librarians, including those of BCPL and far beyond. For the very fortunate, he was an endearing and ever-supportive friend.

    Charlie’s positive legacy thrives within the fabric of America’s public libraries and within many of the lives he touched.