Steve Fesenmaier writes "LIBRARY â€“ An Unquiet History part about Sandy Berman
BY Matthew Battles
Lost in the stacks
And not everyone is happy with them. In seeking a lofty common denominator, useful for libraries of all shapes, sizes, and specialties, the Library of Congress subject classes often strike a tone of bureaucratic high-handedness. Sanford Berman, a librarian in Minnesotaâ€™s Hennepin County Library since 1973, has waged a battle against subject headings he considers racist, reactionary, insulting to human dignity, and plain confusing. In the process, he and a merry band of fellow catalogers turned the HCL catalog into an exemplary tool for readers.
Even a partial list of the substitutions Berman and colleagues have made is at once comical and telling: where LC has the evasive, but etymologically correct, â€?amicide,â€? Berman offers the plainer term â€œfriendly fire casualtiesâ€?; he would replace the impressive â€œdysmenorrheaâ€? with a frank â€œmenstrual cramps.â€? But the difference between Bermanâ€™s cataloging style and that of LC is more than ideological; his cataloging is artisanal. Where librarians are generally pressed to accept ready-made catalog records, gathered in astronomical numbers by consortiums and made available to subscribing libraries over computer networks, Berman insists on using his own intelligence to describe each book the library acquires. Thus, his records often contain added information, such as table of contents and detailed descriptive notes, which are enormously helpful to the reader trying to determine, for example, whether Ntozake Shangeâ€™s Whitewash is a work exploring the impact of a racist hate crime, or a how-to book about house painting.
Library administrators from Melvil Dewey to the present have argued that such hands-on work slows down the process at the heart of the libraryâ€™s mission: putting books into readersâ€™ hand. But to Berman, the top-down, networked library fails on its own terms. The reader isnâ€™t guided efficiently to the right resource; instead, she is alienated and confused by subject classes that emphasize professional knowledge. The efficiencies produced are largely those beneficial to the administrators of large library networks.
Those efficiencies now seem poised to win out. Berman was forced into early retirement â€“ a fate his catalog will share in the wake of its planned replacement with a streamlined, standardized database. When librarians around the country protested the scuttling of the Berman catalog, however, administrators thought twice. It now appears that the catalog will find a home, possibly in the archives of a library school or the American Library Association itself. This is good news for specialists, but cold comfort for the readers of Hennepin County."