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Gadfly in the library.

Sanford Berman is a heretic among librarians. For nearly three decades, he has fought the Library of Congress - his profession's most hallowed institution. As head cataloger at the Hennepin County Library in Minnetonka, Berman is constantly struggling with the Library of Congress standardized subject headings to eliminate those he considers biased or racist. Only recently, he points out, were the terms "Jewish Question" and "Yellow Peril" eliminated from the Library of Congress list.

Berman believes that library headings used to refer to ethnic groups should be the ones the groups themselves prefer. For example, he says, Eskimos should be known as Inuit, and Gypsies ought to be called Romani.

"Perpetuating a catalog system that is inaccurate and culturally biased simply conveys the wrong message," he says. Berman writes articles for professional library publications, speaks at library conferences, and circulates petitions around the country. His activism - particularly during the Persian Gulf war - has made him something of an anomaly in his profession.

Berman is still angry with what he says was the American library profession's "cheerleading spirit" in support of the Persian Gulf war. "Not one major library journal or organization denounced the profession's conscious and indisputable censoring of reading and recreational materials destined for U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia," he says. "By not protesting U.S. and Saudi censorship, we missed a great opportunity to enlarge and deepen democratic debate, and to consistently demonstrate our commitment to intellectual freedom."

Berman's twenty-eight-year library career has taken him all over the United States and to Europe and Africa. He first discovered how commonplace racist subject headings are, he says, when he noticed references to black South Africans listed in the card catalog under "Kaffir" - a term roughly equivalent to "nigger."

In 1967, Berman went to work in the research library at the University of California in Los Angeles. While there, he rescued back issues of I.F. Stone's Weekly from a dumpster. "My boss didn't have a clue how important those issues were," he says. He also testified at an obscenity trial in Los Angeles involving a local underground newspaper. "I was terrified," he says of the trial. He had the impression that the district attorney in the case was after him personally.

Berman left UCLA in 1970 to work as a librarian in Zambia and Uganda before settling in at the Hennepin County Library in 1973, where he is as politically active as ever. "I've had surprisingly little hate mail from either the public or from co-workers," he says. "The only complaints I've received have come when I supported gay rights. I'm particularly concerned about fair and accurate cataloging of gay and lesbian materials."

At the national level, Berman has been active in the American Library Association's Social Responsibility Round Table, the Intellectual Freedom Round Table, and Librarians for Nuclear Arms Control.

In 1988, Berman received a Honeywell Project Award for Peace and Justice, and the following year the American Library Association gave him its Equality Award.

Currently, Berman is working to get the library profession to provide more free services and better access to information for the poor - an uphill battle at a time when resources are shrinking and libraries are charging fees for services more often. In 1990, he co-authored the ALA's Poor People's Policy, which seeks advice on library policy from anti-poverty activists and poor people themselves.

"The very act of libraries having fees and levying fines has social consequences," says Berman. "It can keep people with lower incomes out of the library altogether."
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Title Annotation:activist-librarian Sanford Berman
Author:Kelley-Palmer, Gloria
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Jun 1, 1994
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