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

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To understand his professional demise, it is necessary to know that Sandy Berman has always had a tendency to rant. Contributing to the 1972 underground anthology Revolting Librarians, Berman bemoaned at length the collections of most public libraries in the U.S., which he characterized as stodgy preserves of the elite: "How in hell can the pothead groove on Business Week and Norman Vincent Peale? A feminist get excited over Cosmopolitan and the Ladies Home Journal? Or an acid-rock fancier find any goodies in the Reader's Digest? It ain't easy. Still, longhaired freaks and madassed revolutionaries are as much members of the community as Big Money Makers and hard-hat 'straights.'"

The Chicago-born and Los Angeles-raised Berman was perhaps predisposed to a touch of raucous crusading: "I would say that my folks were good Roosevelt Democrats. It would be fair to characterize the matrix that I grew up in as somewhat, okay, here's the key word coming up, secular Jewish radicalism or liberalism." To borrow a phrase from a speech he once heard I.F. Stone deliver, Berman describes himself as "a pious Jewish atheist" who has long been devoted to books, education, and the tip feather of left-wing politics.

After earning his master's degree in Washington, D.C., Berman worked at libraries in that city and overseas, as a civilian for the army in Germany during the Sixties. But what radicalized him, he says, was his time in Zambia, where he lived with his two children and his wife Lorraine Berman (she died five years ago, after suffering a burst aneurysm in her brain). There he served as an assistant librarian at the University of Zambia Library in Lusaka for two years starting in November 1968. As in most libraries, the collection there used Library of Congress subject headings, which included the word kafirs to refer to black South Africans. Several of his black colleagues told Berman that to be called "kafir" was akin to being called "nigger" in America. An incensed Berman investigated, and his research led him to question a host of other labels used by libraries around the world--a line of inquiry that pried the lid off a Pandora's box of controversial subject headings and, eventually, established Berman's reputation as an unyielding advocate for unbiased language.

The Washington, D.C.-based Library of Congress is the national library of the U.S. Its classifications and cataloging of library materials under various headings set the standard for how libraries typically organize their stock and how users can find them through a database. Berman launched his first full-scale assault on the Library of Congress ("LC" in library parlance) in 1971, with the publication of Prejudices and Antipathies: A Tract on the LC Subject Heads Concerning People. Throughout the book, Berman railed against what he took to be the Eurocentric, Christian-oriented, male-dominated, establishment-pimping LC subject headings. On the heading "Jewish Question," Berman wondered, "What was (and in many places still is) the 'Jewish Question'? Who posed the 'question'? And what kind of 'answer' did they furnish?" Berman pressed on: "The phraseology is that of the oppressor, the ultimate murderer, not the victim. Strong language? The stench of Auschwitz was stronger." He concluded that the heading "richly merits deletion" from the Library. The LC got around to doing just that, some 12 years later, in 1983. Berman similarly suggested abolishing the heading "Yellow Peril," which he placed "with gutter epithets like 'slope,' 'gook,' and 'chink.'"

At work in 1973, Berman's first year as head cataloger for the Hennepin County Library

Courtesy of Chris Dodge

Agitating for such deletions, and for positive additions, is a crusade Berman never abandoned. In the decades after accepting the position of head cataloger for Hennepin County in 1973, Berman frequently took to the lecture circuit, offering his unconventional thoughts on library issues at professional conferences and other venues. When delivering speeches Berman would often rely on a light bulb as a prop, which he would hold aloft and ask his audience to identify. Light bulb, you say? Not to the Library of Congress, he'd explain, for whom the correct answer is "electric lamp, incandescent." Such convoluted labeling, Berman believed, did little to promote the nation's 16,000-plus public libraries as storehouses of knowledge designed for citizens who know a light bulb when they see one.

Hennepin County first levied taxes for a library system in 1922; today its 26 libraries have a combined annual budget of $29.2 million and about 700 employees. Serving more than 700,000 patrons in the suburban metropolitan area, it is ranked as the 46th largest system in the nation in terms of patronage. This year HCL was rated as the fifth best large library in the U.S. by American Libraries magazine. HCL acquires about 250,000 new items annually, and its catalogers create some 30,000 new bibliographic records every year. The 26 county libraries currently have at least 1.6 million materials on hand--books, CDs, videos, periodicals, all detailed in a massive online catalog by author, editor, publisher, publication date, page count, content description, and, of course, subject headings--the most crucial means by which patrons are able to find materials on the shelves.

It was at his Hennepin County post that Berman opened another front in his crusade by promoting the inclusion of hundreds of new subject headings at the Library of Congress. In periodic memos to the LC staff--memos that amounted over the years to a barrage--he proposed innumerable headings as commonsense alternatives to the convoluted language of the Library (for instance, "toilet" instead of "water closet"). But what set Berman's course, and what set him apart as an unorthodox cataloger, was the suggestion of entirely new categories for the county's material--books and articles and new media Berman and his Sandynistas identified as covering topics just coming into existence in the world--computer-technology information, say.

As head cataloger Berman would issue regular updates on new subject headings created by his cataloging staff. The report for April/June 1998 lists more than 200 terms, and it reads like a veritable what's what of contemporary thought, a map by which to explore the social frontier: Internet crime, anal fisting, bistro cookbooks, country music festivals, dental dams, dog astronauts, gay athletic coaches, Jewish-Canadian autobiographies, liquor industry executives, narcoleptic women, new paradigm churches, Take Our Daughters to Work Day, working class women's writings, xenophobia in language, young Chinese-American women, suicide pacts.

Berman is quick to argue that he and his staff weren't in the habit of creating subject headings just for the hell of it; rather, it was work done in response to material that was already in the database, but had been lumped in with stock where it didn't belong or, more often, had been labeled in such a way as to make it nearly impossible for patrons to find. "It doesn't mean that one approves of anal fisting by virtue of having a book on it or creating a subject heading for it," Berman reasons. "It just means that, look, this is the theme, or the subject that's treated in this particular material, and this is where it is." The objective, he stresses, was simple: to fulfill the public library's mission--that of providing patrons with information as readily as possible.


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