February 16, 2018

Robert E. White | Movers & Shakers 2003

The Art of Win-Win


Robert E. White didn’t plan a career in libraries. He had been a marketing manager for AT&T and vice president of marketing and sales promotion for Peachtree Marketing Inc./Sports Impressions. Libraries happened to him while he was building his own consulting business; he took a part-time job at Atlanta-Fulton’s Techwood Homes/Anne Wallace Branch, located in the oldest housing project in America, and discovered the joys of making a difference in children’s lives by teaching them how to use the wealth of information in the library. “This felt so good,” he says, “that I almost forgot about the business operation.”

In the branch’s Homework Center, White taught kids math, grammar, and manners, fed the ones who were hungry, and talked with parents about their children’s problems. He donated items from his business to a “store” where kids could trade book reports for merchandise, which perhaps explains why circulation increased 200 percent in one month.

White enjoyed the youngsters, but he was no pushover. He could be a stern disciplinarian when necessary, which sometimes made them angry with him. So he also let them trade book reports for pies and then compete for the chance to stuff one in his face. Pie day was a major celebration for the kids, and a whole lot of books got read in the process.

By the time Techwood Homes was torn down to make way for the 1996 Olympics, White was committed to library work. He moved to the West End Branch, which served a much more economically and racially diverse community. He spent his first year getting to know the residents’ interests and needs. Since these included a passion for flowers, White started the West End Garden Club for both adults and youths and arranged monthly workshops with local gardening experts.

He also reached out to businesses. Having worked with corporate sponsorships, he knew how to ask businesspeople to help – “I knew how to beg.” White called on his friends to provide refreshments, gift certificates, volunteers, and in-kind services.

Since community residents wanted to learn more about financial planning, White asked Wachovia/First Union to send some of its financial advisers to the West End Branch to teach classes. White also suggested to Wachovia’s management that the 33 libraries in Atlanta-Fulton County were a rich opportunity for them to make friends and drum up business; they contributed $62,000 for a mobile computer lab with 25 laptops. As a result, all the branches were able to participate in the Computer Training @ Your Library program, for which White was the primary instructor.

White drafted another friend, a Microsoft professional, to teach classes on Office products at the West End Branch and asked the director of career planning and placement at one of the historically black colleges in the area to put on résumé-writing instructionals. He enlisted professional trainers to conduct SAT workshops for students at his branch.

White understands win-win relationships; he knows that businesses that serve library programs stand to earn good public relations and advertising. That’s why it’s so easy for him to come up with sponsors for whatever project the library system wants to undertake. For the initial Teen Day program in 1997, he enlisted Coca-Cola; in 2000, he found a number of sponsors for the Diversity Fair.

Of course, White expects his branch’s users to support the services as well. He has established a Friends group and encourages residents to volunteer their services.

His talents, White says, are the gift of gab and the desire to meet people’s needs. He says that each day, “I walk out the door hoping that I will say or do something that makes a difference.” And he gets his wish.




Current Position:
Library Principle Associate, West End Branch, Atlanta-Fulton Public Library

Degree: BA, Journalism and Management, University of Georgia, 1980