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

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Behind that philosophy lies a lifetime of contemplation about the nature of the cataloger's craft. Berman talks of the catalog in reverent language, as one might of, say, the Oracle at Delphi. The catalog is, he believes, something that "reveals"--what is in the collection at hand, what material is available to the pursuit of scholarship, of wisdom. The intelligently conceived catalog orders the universe of information, and guides us toward what is to be learned, and used.

At Emma Goldman's grave in Chicago's Waldheim Cemetery, 1990

Photo by Chris Dodge

Beyond criticizing how most libraries organize their materials--and doing his part to remedy the often arbitrary arrangements--Berman habitually assailed libraries for being afraid of certain materials, particularly the sexually oriented. "There are almost no public libraries in the entire country that have any X-rated videos in their collections," Berman charges. "Even the classics, whether one likes them or not--Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door." Should they? According to the Berman doctrine, absolutely.

Berman argues that libraries' skittishness around sexual topics is a disservice to patrons who, should the materials happen to be on hand, want to find them but might be too shy to ask a reference librarian. "If the catalog can direct people to these things easily and painlessly, then it should," he concludes. "It's a matter, I think, of being fair to the materials and accurately representing what you've got and what people are talking about."

At that, Berman rises from his living-room couch and scurries into his office, returning with "a serious masturbation video, for and about women" as just one example of educational materials shunned by public libraries. At one point Berman's sex crusading even caught the notice of the Alabama-based Factor Press, publisher of the male-oriented masturbation magazine Celebrate the Self. For his promotion of what Berman calls his "un-hungup" attitudes toward access to sexual information, the group awarded him its Golden Phallus Award, whose past recipients include former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, in 1997. "They did a nice press release and all that, which I duly copied," Berman recalls. "Then I sent that, not knowing whether they would like it, to the library press: zip mention." As for the award itself, he allows, "There wasn't a statue, but there was a nice certificate."

Each cataloging update Berman sent around also included an inventory of subject headings HCL had added and that the Library of Congress, with prodding from Berman, had followed suit by establishing on its master list. In the April/June 1998 dispatch, for example, Berman noted that the LC had inaugurated "Afro-American Philosophers" on April 22, 1998; Hennepin originated that very heading in March 1991. The LC added "Executive Search Firms" on April 29, 1998; Hennepin had begun using the slightly broader "Executive Search Services" for nearly 16 years. Similarly, the LC added "Food Banks" in April 1998; Hennepin had first used the term the previous year. On March 11, 1998, the august LC even instituted the category of "Nude Beaches," seven years on the heels of Hennepin. Some victories came more quickly: the LC christened the heading "V-Chips" on April 1, 1998, 15 months after Hennepin had done so.

It's no secret, and perhaps no surprise, that over the decades the Library of Congress came to regard Berman as something of a crank and a pest. Beacher Wiggins, director of cataloging there, confirms that the Library did add terms that originated with Berman's crew in Hennepin County; but he is resolutely nonexpansive on the subject of Berman himself, offering only that "we recognize that he exists."

Others at the LC have been more forthcoming. One contributor to the anthology about Berman highlights a quote, made by an anonymous source who labored deep within the bowels of the library, that serves as its own quirky tribute: "Sandy Berman is a major pain in the ass. He runs a horse-and-buggy cataloging operation in Minnesota and he thinks he can tell us how to do our jobs. He's an insufferable, self-righteous, unrealistic, naive, head-in-the-clouds idealist who knows nothing about the real world of grind-it-out bibliographic data."


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