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

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On Monday, April 19--three months after he'd mailed the original memo--Berman arrived at work only to learn that he would no longer be overseeing the day-to-day business of cataloging. He'd been reassigned, to the one-man task of penning a "Cataloging Practices Manual" that would detail that county's cataloging operations and circulate among the 26 county and out-of-state libraries. Put simply, he'd been shuttled into a desk job he didn't want. The staffwide announcement from HCL director Brown asked everyone "to join me in congratulating Sandy on this new opportunity to expand his considerable influence and leadership in the development of user sensitive cataloging."

To no one's surprise, the celebratory tone was lost on Berman. The posting was the first he'd heard of the project he was to assume. All he knew was that he was supposed to be in Brown's office for an 8:30 appointment that morning.

At the meeting Berman learned that Feinberg had been tapped to take over his post, thereby relieving him of his current duties and separating him from the devoted staff he'd worked so closely with over the years. In the past, Berman says, he'd repeatedly suggested to HCL higher-ups that they find a way to market the library's subject-heading innovations. Compiling the how-to manual himself was not what he had in mind. The reassignment, he figured, could only be a demotion, a slap in the face for his critical January memo. "If there was any kind of fundamental respect for me as colleague and person," he believed of the decision, "it does not bespeak respect or concern or consideration to impose this kind of drastic reassignment of work without ever having broached the subject beforehand." From where Berman sat, the project he was to undertake smelled like "a reassignment to full-time toilet cleaning."

Berman told them to flush it. He informed Brown and Hennepin County's senior human resources representative Tom O'Neill that he regarded the move as retaliation for his outspoken approach to library matters. He added that he refused to discuss the situation further until he'd spoken with a lawyer.

Rather than accept the new role, Berman went on sick leave. He tendered his resignation four days later, on April 23, effective June 10. He would never work another day for the county he'd served for the bulk of his professional career. In a final staffwide e-mail message, he wrote, "I refuse to submit to any further muzzling, punishment, and humiliation."

Berman speculates that his one-man publicity crusade has roiled up enough attention to reach critical mass, and taxed his supervisors' patience to the point of exasperation. Regrets? Not a one: "Brown probably regards me at least as an irritant or a gadfly in the system, and at worst, subversive." Still, Berman maintains that when he sat down at his typewriter that winter morning in Plymouth, he had simply meant to generate a fruitful discussion about issues he believed needed hashing over. Hell, he'd figured, if reasonable people can't manage to do that--talk, and talk some more, when talking matters most--what's the meaning of free speech?

Brown, who has directed the HCL since April 1994, won't talk in detail about personnel matters, particularly those surrounding Berman's departure. He allows only, "I think very highly of Sandy and his contributions to the Hennepin County Library and the library profession in general." But, he adds after a pause, "For someone who's in a management position, I didn't sense a commitment I would expect in order to ensure [the transition's] success." Brown contends that he thought the reassignment might allow Sandy to focus on what he did best--cataloging--by giving him time to create a guidebook to his methodology. "I really regret his perception of the situation," Brown says. "He would have been the best person to head up the effort." As for Berman's relentless campaign to publicize his side of the falling-out, Brown admits that the outcry locally and across the nation has been "almost beyond my comprehension."

Berman is hardly appeased. HCL management, he is sure, is relieved to see him gone and the strife he stirred up settle. Of Brown's kind words for him, Berman figures that "on one level that might be true. On another level I believe that it is bullshit."


Dozens of cars circled the blocks around Sandy Berman's house on the afternoon of Saturday, June 12, searching for a place to park along the already jammed curbs. Guests--librarians, catalogers, Sandynistas--spilled out Berman's back door and into the garden, drinking beer, praising the bagpipe player, and, in not so quiet tones, lauding the fact that Hennepin County's renegade cataloger had not gone down without a fight.

During the afternoon Berman's ex-colleagues, on behalf of the library system's union, bestowed on him the first annual Sandy Berman Award for Social Responsibility in Library Services. The citation pointed to his "many years of passionate service to the diverse patrons of the library world" and expressed "gratitude for his generous leadership, guidance, and inspiration." In typical fashion, Berman managed to turn the celebration into a cause, eschewing gifts in favor of encouraging attendees to make donations to the Emergency Food Shelf. His guests raised $1,124 for the charity.

The following week, Hennepin County's senior human resources representative sent Berman a short note. "Dear Sandy," it read. "Congratulations on your retirement from the Hennepin County Library, Cataloging Section. I wish you well as you retire after 26 years. Enclosed is a letter opener as a token of appreciation." Berman took the gift out back to the garden, where he "plunged it into a piece of rotting wood," not too far from the Remington.


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