He was known as Mr. Library, and no wonder.
Robert Rohlf directed the Hennepin County Library system for 25 years, served as president of the national Public Library Association, and worked at the top levels of the Library of Congress. Throughout a long career, he became known locally and nationally as a innovator in how library services are delivered.
Rohlf, a Minneapolis native, died June 6. He was 89.
“He saw a library as a place for a community to come together and not just to check out a book and go home,” said Lois Langer Thompson, director of the Hennepin County Library system. “It was a place where things were happening and not just a repository of books.”
Rohlf graduated from De La Salle High School, received a bachelor’s in history from the College of St. Thomas and completed a master’s degree in library administration from the University of Minnesota.
He began his career at the Minneapolis Public Library in 1955 and became project manager for planning the new Minneapolis Central Library, which was replaced in 2006. He moved on to direct the Dakota-Scott Regional Library, and in 1965 was recruited by the Library of Congress to coordinate the building of the James Madison Memorial Library in Washington, D.C.
After two years as director of administration for the Library of Congress, Rohlf returned to Minnesota to join the Hennepin County Library system as its director in 1969. During his tenure, 15 new libraries were built and circulation grew sixfold. One of his pioneering ideas was to build larger regional libraries near busy retail centers, including Southdale, Ridgedale and Brookdale.
“He didn’t take himself too seriously, but he took our library system very seriously and he oversaw a period of immense growth in our suburban libraries,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat.
Rohlf was in a “perpetually good mood,” Opat said, outgoing and always enthusiastic about library services, including events that he attended for many years after retirement in 1994.
“I’ll remember him as a great leader and friend and just a true believer in our Hennepin County Library system,” Opat said.
Rohlf was also a charter member of the Minnesota Humanities Commission, a volunteer for many years with Meals on Wheels and Habitat for Humanity, and a board member on several other civic organizations.
Rohlf’s daughter Cynthia Molenaar of Cannon Falls, Minn., said her father was a “worker bee” who always wanted to achieve something with his life.
“His big brainchild was when he came up with idea of multicounty public libraries instead of every little place having a collection,” she said, “and that different library groups should share all of their materials.”
Family and religion were priorities in Rohlf’s life, Molenaar said. As well, he was passionate about providing library services to all people.
He also led a consulting firm that advised architects and builders on how library space should be utilized, she said, and worked on projects in more than 40 states and six countries, including Paris; Mexico City, and Alexandria, Egypt.
Rohlf was preceded in death by Joan, his wife of 67 years. Besides Molenaar, he is survived by another daughter, Catherine Stepanek of Mound; three sons, William of Edina, John of Northville, Mich., and David of Edina; 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Services will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at St. Thomas Apostle Church, 2914 W. 44th St., Minneapolis.