The Mad Librarian

For years, library chief Charlie Robinson has kept Baltimore County in the information revolution's vanguard. Now he predicts the end of libraries as we know them. Virtual libraries anyone?

Baltimore magazine, January, 1995

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Even on the sunniest of days, the Towson public library bustles like a basement sale. Teenagers confabulate, researchers burrow, librarians hustle after arcane information. From his big, bright office on the second floor, county library chief Charlie Robinson can see the whole thing coming apart. Twenty years from now, there'll be no such thing as a library, he predicts. And, the bespectacled bookman adds, he couldn't be more delighted.

All this hubbub gone? If you don’t know Robinson, long regarded by his peers as the Paul Revere of the information revolution. Even his most out landish predictions have had a deadly accuracy.

“He’s a true visionary,” gushes George Needham, executive director of the Public Library Association in Chicago. “Either he predicts the future or he molds it. It’s kind of hard to tell sometimes.”

Right now, he’s betting tax money that libraries will vanish replaced by small computers that can read newspapers off of satellites or download books through a phone line. If libraries survive, he speculates, they’ll exist only through “librarians” you contact by computer. Library buildings might hang on as meeting halls. Then again, teleconferencing might take care of that need, as well.

We have the technology to go virtual now. What makes the task risky is that no one yet knows how we’ll end up doing it. If Robinson guesses wrong, Baltimore County’s next generation of library-goers could find themselves residents of a Betamax county in a VHS world. “The digital business is scaring the hell out of me,” Robinson admits. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Nevertheless, he’s postponed retirement to indulge this terror. Now 66, he collects his pension (saving BCPL $50,000 annually), but keeps his director’s chair indefinitely. He wants to see BCPL lead the way for public libraries, as it has since his arrival in 1959. Although the library board has had to close nine branches since 1991 due to a statewide budget crunch, its investment in “electronic materials” has been heavy. In 1994, $250,000 of BCPL’s annual $4-million materials budget went for electronic matter. That’s just over six percent of the book budget.

The library also spent $500,000 on its computer search system. This year it will spend more. And what does that money buy?

It rents a year’s use of a for-profit database in Denver, Colorado that allows BCPL patrons to peer at an index of 16,000 publications and print some stories 10 cents per page. (Other stories are available by mail at a higher price.) The money also rents a brightly colored, easy-to-use menu system for BCPL’s own catalog of books. The library spends another half-million dollars annually for phone lines, hardware, and training employees to run the system.

BCPL trustees are an accomplished group, but even their eyes glaze over when boardroom talk turns technological. Robinson gives a pep talk, then his sharp techie explains the proposal. The members crack jokes and stab at relevant questions. “How about using that fiber optic?” someone asks. In the end, BCPL’s board generally follows Robinson’s instincts, even as they wrestle with annoyingly fundamental questions:

Why should we expect people to accept these computers when many are still grappling with VCRs? Is Robinson really blazing a path into the future or just buying into communications companies’ marketing hype?

Charlie Robinson is no stranger to new frontiers. He came to Baltimore County in 1959, when it was mostly farmland dotted with small towns. Back then, BCPL stood in the shadow of one of the world’s great libraries

Baltimore City’s Enoch Pratt Free Library. In 1963 he became director of BCPL, at the age of 35.

Though small, BCPL had to reckon with the needs of a booming county. Robinson had to take risks to enlarge the system. He adopted a philosophy of experimentation in which all but the largest blunders could be ameliorated by the yearly growth of the tax base. Some experiments failed, such as mini-libraries placed in high-rent malls, but most worked.

Perhaps it helped that Robinson came to the field with a certain detachment. He chose library science because its master’s degree took only one year to earn, while a different master’s would have taken two.

But his most valuable training may have come on the battlefield during the Korean War, where he was assigned to notify parents of soldiers killed in action.

How absurd, he thought, to put another soldier's life (namely his) at risk for a scribbled mark. Soon, he was forging the commanders' signatures himself. That way, the C.O.'s weren't distracted from the vital task of keeping the rest of their command alive, Robinson wouldn't be shot at, and the grieving parents would never know the difference.

Robinson returned alive, having learned to serve the end-user without needlessly jeopardizing the assets of the provider. “I have always looked at libraries from the point of view of the [patron] rather than the librarian,” he says. A favorite phrase: “Give the people what they want, not what librarians feel they should want.”

In a way, it was Robinson who first brought libraries into the computer age. In the early 1960s, he introduced the first machine-readable card catalog. With two new county branches opening each year, Robinson’s staff was having difficulty producing card catalogs, which involved typing up thousands of 3x5 index cards.

“You had to make four cards for every title,” Robinson recalls. “Some guy walked in off the street, a Baltimore County resident who worked for an outfit in Bethesda called Documentation Inc. They were very, very early into text processing and he said ‘You know, I can computerize your catalog.’”

Fantastic, thought Robinson, but how much would it cost? Surprisingly, the price was far lower than making a catalog by hand. The company would enter the information on its mainframe computer and copy it onto microfiche for distribution to every library.

The white plastic microfiche readers were a crude but effective precursor to the online catalog, but because of them, Robinson was branded a heretic. It wasn’t the change of mediums that got him excommunicated by many of his peers, though. It was what information he chose to put into the listings and what he chose to leave out.

“Traditionally, a card catalog has a huge amount of information on it. The reason it has so much information is that it has 3x5 inches and can hold that information,” Robinson explains.

With paid consultants typing the data into a computer, “I knew the more keystrokes you put in, the more it costs,” he recalls. So he pared the information to the subject, copyright date, author, title, and branch. “Do we need a publisher? Nah. Who cares about the publishers?”

Library users, like the parents of the deceased soldiers, were none the wiser. The library profession was another matter.

Robinson was attending a library convention in Chicago when he was accosted by an esteemed professor, who informed the young director that his abbreviated catalogs had “set libraries back 50 years.” Yet four years after the machine-readable catalog was introduced in Baltimore County, the Library of Congress adopted a similar one.

Robinson kept the innovations coming. He “merchandised” the libraries, buying neon signs to advertise them and laboring over seemingly minor details like providing adequate parking. Perhaps his most notorious act was purging the library of little-used books and stocking up on best-sellers. At one point, BCPL owned more than 700 copies of James Michener’s Chesapeake. Predictably, the library community squawked. “We are cheating [our taxpayers] if we cater to the lowest common denominator of taste,” wrote one angry library director in Publishers Weekly.

The patrons themselves didn’t seem to mind. “In all these years I’ve never had anybody complain about the collections of Baltimore County,” says Maurice Travillian, assistant state superintendent for libraries. “For the most part, people are delighted.”

BCPL now boasts nearly 600,000 card users who check out over 12 million items a year. On average, every citizen borrows 17.5 books, tapes, records, or magazines per year, well over the national average of 7.3 items. Robinson’s innovations have been adopted by suburban county systems country-wide.

Libraries those quintessential purveyors of information, should be celebrating the information age, but instead find themselves paralyzed by an identity crisis. Once, their mission was simple. People started writing things down; libraries stored and preserved the documents. Librarians made judgments about which information was worth preserving. In this modest but pervasive way, what they valued helped shape our culture.

“Librarians have always been able to help judge the reliability of ‘the data they got,” notes Travillian. “We’ve helped with book selection. We’ve advised that this source may be better than that.” He insists librarians will have the same role with electronic books but admits that, where public-access data banks like the Internet are concerned, “we’ve got no clue as to the reliability of the data.”

So what should libraries buy now? Should they keep on buying books a

format that may soon be obsolete? Do they invest in technology when they’re clearly buying blind? One thing’s for sure: they can’t afford to keep on buying both.

“People are possibly spending on technology thinking they re improving access to materials, when in fact they may be stealing resources,” says Robinson, who is obviously aware he may be talking about himself.

Until the new course is set, libraries risk creating gaps in their collections, and those gaps might be as wide as 20 years across. Who is keeping a permanent record of the electronic documents that now jam the nation’s phone lines and computer screens?

Worse yet, universal access to information, unlike universal health coverage, is anything but a hot topic right now. “People just don't give a rat's ass about free access to information,” Robinson says. So most decisions concerning this crucial part of civilization are being made for you, without the benefit of a public dialogue. Which is fine by Robinson, who deliberately chose not to consult organizations like the American Library Association to collaborate on a set of standards. “They would just screw it up,” he says.

Instead, BCPL has forged an alliance with CARL, the Denver cornpany that provides its computer index. The company agreed to reduce Baltimore County’s rental fees and use it as the test site before marketing its services to libraries nationwide. Obviously, BCPL and CARL hope the system will become the new standard, just as card catalogs were the standard of the 19th century and microfiche was the standard until recently.

Here’s what happens if Baltimore County once again sets the standard:

CARL decides which information to provide. And, like cable TV companies , CARL will decide based on what makes a profit, not based on what is most worthy. Of course, if CARL doesn’t become the standard, Baltimore County will be left with a whole lot of nothing.

But Robinson isn’t troubled by those concerns. He revels in them. Robinson the rebel is back on the “bleeding edge,” as he calls it, standing firm near the end of a distin guished career. This time, though, your children’s intellectual heritage hangs in the balance. It may be Robinson’s biggest wager yet.

--Joab Jackson

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