Sanford “Sandy” Berman, US librarian

From 1973 until early 1999, Sanford Berman served as the head of cataloging for the Hennepin County, Minnesota library system. During that time, he has become one of the most vocal voices in the library field and probably the formost critic on methods of cataloging and the deficiencies of the Library of Congress Classification System.

To those non-librarians who think librarianship is nothing more than putting books on a shelf, the idea of controversies arising from cataloging books may seem rather strange. But how information is organized can affect how people seek information, what information they seek, what materials are acquired by libraries, and can even, according to some theories, shape how people see the world.

Berman’s work in this area began while he was working at the University of Zambia Library in Lusaka from 1968 to 1970, when African colleagues explained to him the offensive nature of the word “kafir”, which was used as a subject heading in the LC cataloging system. Soon afterward came his 1971 book Prejudices and Antipathies: A Tract on the LC Subject Heads Concerning People, which attacked Eurocentric and racist subject headings like “the Jewish Question” (“Who posed the 'question'? And what kind of 'answer' did they furnish?”) and “yellow peril”. He also criticized subject headings which he felt made information harder to find instead of easier, and advocated replacing out of date and mystifying subject headings like “electric lamp, incandescent” and “water closet” with “light bulb” and “toilet”.

He’s also put his money where his mouth is with his work at Hennepin by creating and implementing new subject headings in that library system, many of which were later adopted by the Library of Congress. With most of them, such as “V-chips”, “food banks”, and “Internet crime”, Berman was simply many steps ahead of a slow bureacratic machine. With others, like “anal fisting” and “dental dams”, Berman was venturing into controversial territory.

Berman has courted controversy throughout his career, so much so that some at the Library of Congress and elsewhere consider him a crank and “a pain in the ass” (so sayeth one anonymous LC desk jockey), but others admire his work and call themselves “Sandynistas”. Many people have been the recipient of his letters and memos, cranked out on his manual Remington typewriter, not to mention his e-mail and packets of photocopies. It was one of those memos that got him fired. Berman didn’t imagine his relatively inoccuous three paragraph memo, commenting on some potential problems with the Hennepin system joining the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), a network of libraries sharing cataloging data. Library administrators reprimanded Berman and later shunted him into another position without consulting him, prompting Berman to resign in disgust.

Sources include:

For more information, visit this website dedicated to his work, which includes the full text of Prejudices and Antipathies:

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