March 18, 2018

Arguing with Charlie: Debate need not be hostile | Blatant Berry

John Berry IIICharlie Robinson and I both earned our MLS degrees at the School of Library Science (SLS) at Simmons College in Boston. I first met Charlie (who died last month) in the office of Ken Shaffer, the SLS dean. When alumni would come back to visit, Shaffer would gather a few of his favorites in his office for conversation. If they were influential dignitaries, or he thought they would become such, he liked it all the better.

I was just a student at the time, working at the Reading Public Library, MA. Charlie was not yet the big deal he became as director of the Baltimore County Public Library (BCPL), but he did work for the famous director of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Emerson Greenaway. I don’t remember much about that initial encounter, but I do know that it was the beginning of what would become one of the most important professional relationships of my career.

I later joined the library staff at Simmons and taught at SLS.

Another visiting notable in those years was Eric Moon, then editor of Library Journal, who brought librarians touring from all over the world to Boston. A long, boozy night with Moon eventually got me invited to be his assistant editor at LJ in New York. It was Moon who taught me that adversarial relationships, arguments, and debates in the profession need not be hostile.

It was Charlie Robinson who proved it.

We were on opposite sides on a host of the professional controversies of our time. For example, I thought librarians owed their patrons some guidance in finding the books they needed for entertainment or information. I felt that Charlie’s emphasis on the popular titles, the “give ’em what they want” theory of library book selection, was the abandonment of a professional responsibility. I obviously lost that argument for most of the public librarians of our time, but it reminded me that the discourse could remain civil, no matter how emotional it got. I kept at it even after I lured Nora Rawlinson to New York from BCPL as Editor of the LJ Book Review. She and I replayed in the pages of LJ and in our offices many of the issues I had contested with Charlie.

I didn’t get to argue with him face-to-face very often. Mostly, we talked briefly at conferences once or twice a year. But Charlie had won a huge following of librarians, and I was forced to defend my position with many of them over the years. I stuck to my guns through most of that period, but I have to concede that I have been convinced that centralized collection development, the outgrowth of Charlie’s theories, works and hasn’t yet eliminated “the classics” from library shelves.

On most issues, going toe-to-toe strengthened my resolve and forced me to muster evidence to support my arguments in print and in person. In fact, debates with Charlie were both educational and entertaining. They demonstrated how professional arguments are valuable, worth having, and ought to be sought by librarians. They are easy to find, and while it is a bit more difficult, anger can be avoided despite the emotions in play.

Our profession faces a host of controversial concerns. We haven’t been particularly good at developing the skills to debate them all, and many of us, myself included, are sometimes intimidated by the status or rhetorical brilliance of our opponents. What I learned from Charlie and other challengers over this long career is how crucial the debate is to my own understanding and articulation of those ideas. I might never have worked so hard to fortify my arguments and try to improve my rhetorical style had I not had the tutorial of facing off against Charlie and his followers.

I have missed him for a long time now. He had been ill, and now he is gone. Still, the significance of those debates and my respect for my favorite adversary have grown throughout my career. I owe Charlie Robinson a great deal for the intellectual stimulation and, yes, the friendship he showed me. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to tell him that.

John Berry

This article was published in Library Journal's May 1, 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III ( is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.



  1. Cheryl Napsha says:

    John, I am so sorry for your loss, both professional and personal.
    Having become a public library director with no public library experience, I searched for guidance and was blessed to discover Charlie Robinson, the Director of BCPL, and the ‘give ’em what they want’ philosophy, which resonated on a core level.
    Years later, descending an escalator at an ALA conference I saw the real-life Charlie Robinson standing in front of me and froze– would it be inappropriate to genuflect? Perform obeisance? While I managed to restrain myself from gushing, Charlie Robinson maintained that star status in my world view.
    I’ve now been a public library director for more than twenty years, but Robinson’s service ethic and vision remain a touchstone for me. He was a giant who changed public libraries (and therefore the world) for the better.

  2. Stu Grainor says:

    John Berry: If you want to truly test this “disagree but not despise” ideal, imagine the two of you in a lifeboat. You’ve been floating on the ocean for almost a week. Both of you are hungry, thirsty, and starting to lose hope. Would you kill and each your friend? If not and both of you starve, then you can say you have a “disagree but not despise” relationship.