Sandy Berman's Last Stand
Cover Story · Vol 20 · Issue 971 · 7/14/99
By Burl Gilyard

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Berman copied the missive to three of his superiors--HCL director Charles Brown, technical services manager Sharon Charles, and technical services assistant manager Elizabeth Feinberg--and didn't give it a second thought. After all, he wrote several of them every week. As he saw it, the note was simply a response to a memo that had been sent around the week before concerning pending changes in how the HCL handled the business of cataloging library materials--that is, how the county's 26 libraries organize and classify books, periodicals, videos, CDs, and other media for patrons to find when they search the online catalogs. As the chief in charge of cataloging operations, Berman figured the higher-ups spearheading the project might want his two cents worth on the matter.

Image By Jackie Urbanovic

But a few weeks later, Berman's supervisors, who have office doors that close, tapped him a little note in response. It was five paragraphs long, but had a more clipped tone than his January 18 memo: It was a formal, written reprimand. Brown and Feinberg informed Berman that they viewed his communiqué as "inappropriate" and that it constituted a violation of the county's Human Resources Rules of Conduct. They advised, "You have the right as a citizen to express your opinion. You may not initiate discussion of that opinion on work time nor route that opinion to staff at work." And they cautioned that "further counterproductive behavior" would prompt "further discipline."

Three paragraphs, or five, can change a man's life.

The avuncular, 65-year-old Berman wasn't ready to leave his $59,000-a-year post yet, but as events unfolded in the months after composing his memo--his push to have the reprimand withdrawn failed, after which he was reassigned without prior notification to a different position--wound up resigning, in disgust. Still bitter about his departure from the library system he'd helped build into a nationally distinguished model, Berman calls the exit a "forced retirement."

These days he has plenty of time to be padding around his Edina house in socks, an "Alternative Library Literature" T-shirt, and blue jeans. The shirt commemorates the most recent edition of the biennial journal Berman co-edits, one devoted to compiling cutting-edge material on library-related issues; the comic-strip-art cover parodies a pulp paperback and depicts a 1930s-style raid by cops bursting in on an illicit backroom publishing operation. From his closetlike home office, equipped with two Olympia manual typewriters, Berman is leading a one-man retribution campaign. Since late February he's been steadily photocopying any and all documents related to his departure from Hennepin County--memos, printouts of e-mail, declarations of support, letters of outrage to the library administration--and stuffing them into bulging envelopes to send out to friends, colleagues, the library press, and kindred spirits around the nation: his own guerrilla clipping service.

When those mailings in turn generate stories in trade publications such as Library Journal or still other letters of protest, Berman copies those and stuffs them in the mail, too. With each, he encloses a typed note or, often, simply his scrawled S. He is afflicted by what one fellow cataloger dubs a "compulsive" need to bestow information on anyone and everyone he thinks might find it beneficial. Retiring, it seems, hasn't cured him a bit. Berman recognizes the fixation--the very trait that triggered his resignation. "I can't have information I know would be of use to someone and not share it," he's been quoted as saying, with not a hint of remorse in his voice.

Berman on the intricacies of card cataloging at the University of Zambia Library, circa 1969

Courtesy of Chris Dodge

Berman's cramped study also serves as a storage vault for the bookmarks of his career, including the 597-page, two-volume thesis he wrote for his master of library science degree at Washington, D.C.'s Catholic University of America, Spanish Guinea: An Annotated Bibliography, circa 1961. Berman allows that, indeed, he went a little farther with it than did his classmates with theirs: "Some of them actually got away with doing a 50-page index of a parish newspaper!" he remarks, arching a bushy eyebrow. "It didn't seem like rigorous scholarship." Rigorous might be an understatement for Berman's cloth-bound tomes, which could knock a person out with a well-placed blow.

Berman's large-framed, squarish glasses, white beard, and swept-back froth of hair give him a professorial air, and he has a publishing record to support the impression. His shelves also hold copies of several books Berman has compiled, contributed to, or written, such as his 1981 collection The Joy of Cataloging: Essays, Letters, Reviews, and Other Explosions, and one book about him: a compilation of tributes from 1995, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sandy Berman but Were Afraid to Ask, co-edited by two of Berman's HCL cataloging colleagues, who are known in library circles as "Sandynistas."

Turn from the shelves and you'll face a chaotic wall plastered with laminated buttons ("Honorary Gay Man," "Wellstone," "Black Feminism Lives"), photos, clippings, bumper stickers ("Sanford Berman: 20 Years of Service"), notes, ephemera, and anything that seemed, to his mind, worth saving. And there, amid the memories, hang the awards he's received: Minnesota Librarian of the Year in 1977, the American Library Association's Equality Award in 1989, and the Honeywell Project Anniversary Award for Peace and Justice. The latter, from 1988, bears a quote by Mahatma Gandhi that's become a favorite of Berman's: "Even a single lamp dispels the deepest darkness."

His trusty Remington, from his old office, has itself been retired to this address, to the garden in the back yard, where it has been plopped into the rain-drenched dirt--either as a tombstone of sorts or as a trophy commemorating his 26 years as perhaps the nation's most outspoken, revered (by some), and irritating (to others) champion of the public library's duty to preserving free speech, access to information, and an uncensored press. More than two months after announcing his untimely resignation, Berman still sounds a bit puzzled as to how the whole controversy started. "All I did," he offers with a sigh, "was write a letter."


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