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

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For better or for worse, controversy sticks to Berman like lint. At times he seems to attract it, perhaps thrive on it, if only because he appears to have an unalterable inability to refrain from airing his views. When the HCL administration floated a plan in 1996 to raise money by way of doubling fines on children's materials, Berman's voice was the loudest in a choir of dissent; he was later admonished for circulating a petition among staff that opposed the policy.

Two of Berman's Sandynistas, Chris Dodge and Jan DeSirey, who co-edited Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sandy Berman but Were Afraid to Ask, included in the 1995 festschrift an appendix of his "rants"--letters to newspapers (to the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1990: "I believe Walt Whitman to be the best damn poet America ever produced. I also believe he was gay, and find no contradiction nor cause for alarm in that."), elected officials (to Minnesota representative Jim Ramstad the following year, concerning the Gulf War: "I believe that you either do not truly comprehend what has happened or, more charitably, have been misinformed"), federal magistrates, Northern States Power, the New Yorker, and the Hennepin County human resources department.

Dodge's contribution to the volume, "Troubled Waters," noted that Berman's career at Hennepin County had hardly been a smooth ride: "Depending on which insider you talk to, his history there has been either that of a problem employee or one who has spent a career resisting administration-by-threat and draconian policy making." Dodge pointed out several clashes between Berman and HCL management, from bickering over his prolific and political mailing habits to arguments about his 1990 letter, on HCL stationery, demanding the recall of a book that claimed "AIDS is a form of self-punishment." In the typewritten message, Berman called for an apology "to the gay community and all persons with AIDS." Instead of getting that, he wound up being verbally reprimanded by library administrators.

Last year, when HCL proposed its "Bestseller Express"--a program whereby library users could "rent" new, high-demand titles by authors such as John Grisham and Dean Koontz for $3 a week, as a means of reducing long waiting lists--Berman railed against it as an "elite, discriminatory service based entirely on a person's ability to pay." Despite the opposition he rallied among the ranks, "Bestseller Express" officially began on January 18, 1999; in response to a staffwide e-mail about the launch, Berman fired off a short reply, pointing out that the program was only "open" to those who could afford it. The next day, Berman got a memo from HCL director Charles Brown scolding him for broadcasting his views and dubbing the e-mail "unnecessary and inappropriate." Brown then requested that the head cataloger "please refrain from utilizing this important library communications tool to broadcast your personal perceptions and views."

Given that track record of headbutting and reprimands (he was, all parties agree, already in hot water with the administration), one might wonder what possessed Berman to sit down at his old Remington that Monday morning in January to compose yet another noisy memo--the one that, as it turned out, charted the collision course that would lead to his resignation. One might wonder, if they hadn't yet made the acquaintance of Sandy Berman.

The previous week, technical services assistant manager Elizabeth Feinberg, one of Berman's supervisors, had sent out a memo about HCL's transition to two standardized systems of cataloging: The county system would become more reliant on something called the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules, Second Edition (AACR2) guidelines. It would also be joining the Online Computer Library Center Inc. (OCLC) library network, which links more than 30,000 libraries in 65 nations, and functions as a massive database of nearly 42 million records. As part of the overhaul project, HCL was to begin adopting several standardized codes in the areas of grammar, abbreviations, and headings that it had not used in the past. Attached to Feinberg's memo was another, from Bill DeJohn and Carla Dewey of MINITEX, the state-funded network of libraries, of which HCL is a member.

In response Berman dashed off his offending memo, addressed to DeJohn and Dewey, confirming that, yes, he was convinced that the Hennepin County Library and AACR2 could collaborate on the transition to an expanded cataloging system. But Berman, in signature form, did not, or could not, stop there. He went on to lament that AACR2 was not, in his judgment, in the habit of being "user-friendly," that "School, public, and community library users, in particular, were not well served by the AACR2 drafters. I invite you & MINITEX to join me in a nearly 3-decade-long campaign to genuinely make library catalogs more user-friendly & much less elitist and mystifying." Berman signed off with his "warmest regards," and copied the memo to Feinberg, technical services manager Charles, and director Brown.

HCL director Charles Brown admits that the outcry raised over Berman's departure has been "almost beyond my comprehension"

Courtesy of Hennepin County Library

Berman's colleagues at MINITEX don't seem to have been offended by his communiqué. As DeJohn recalls, "I just took it as a response from Sandy on a memo I had sent Hennepin County. It was just a friendly response to my note." Dewey says, "I received it as just a statement of his position, some of his concerns about the widely accepted standards. I didn't see it as contentious."

That view was not shared by Berman's supervisors. For writing and sending the three-paragraph memo, Berman received a five-paragraph written reprimand on February 8 from Brown and Feinberg, charging that "Your active support of these changes is required. At this time, your 'three-decade-long campaign' is extremely counterproductive to the cataloging reengineering process, causes divisiveness throughout the organization and presents an extremely poor image to colleagues who are working with HCL." Beyond the cataloging issue itself, the censure clearly suggested irritation that Berman had deigned to air his thoughts on the issue, as he had so often before. The letter warned that "further counterproductive behavior" would be considered "insubordination and be cause for further discipline." Attached was a copy of the Hennepin County Human Resources Rules of Conduct.

Berman immediately sought to have the reprimand withdrawn. He fired back a letter in which he argued that he was not opposed to the new programs, but that he simply wanted to engage in some serious discussion about the best way to go about putting them into practice. In a memo back to Berman on February 22, Brown made it clear that the reprimand would not be retracted.

It was at this juncture that Berman, by his own admission, "went public" with the dispute and began drumming up support by circulating copies of the relevant paperwork to his many friends and colleagues. Many of those who received Berman's salvos began writing indignant letters and petitions on his behalf, and the mail poured into Brown's office.

The editors of the national trade magazine Library Journal led the charge, sarcastically awarding "The Staff Morale & Unity Award" to Brown and Feinberg for their treatment of Berman. The same April 1 issue featured an article, "Hennepin County Rebukes Berman," that reverently summed up the head cataloger's status in a single word: "legendary." Berman's longtime friend Al Kagan, with the African Studies Library at the University of Illinois, added his voice to the dissent: "Berman is almost like a cataloging guru. The Hennepin County Library is known nationwide because Sandy is there--not for another reason, but because of Sandy. He is the library's claim to fame." Kagan let it be known that he considered the HCL management's handling of the conflict nothing short of a "travesty."


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