Wild in the Stacks
Radical librarian Sanford Berman advocates for alternative media, library users’ rights, and information access.
July/August 2002 Issue
Meet Sanford Berman, who since the late 1960s has written, spoken, and acted on his belief that librarians have social responsibilities and that public libraries can be liberating. In a profession sometimes known for dispassionate wallflowers, Berman has outspokenly opposed injustices, both in library practices and in the world at large.
Retired, but far from retiring, the 68-year-old Berman spent 26 years as head cataloger at Hennepin County Library in suburban Minneapolis. There he and his "Sandynistas" helped make library materials more accessible by changing arcane and otherwise dysfunctional rules, terminology, and practices. Nationally, Berman continues to argue for policy changes, seeking to make libraries easier to use and for institutional engagement in addressing social problems such as homelessness.
Berman’s book Prejudices and Antipathies (Scarecrow, 1971; McFarland, 1993) criticized standard Library of Congress subject headings for their inherent biases—including erotophobia and ethnocentrism—as well as for their outdated or convoluted terminology. Thanks to Berman’s lobbying, the Library of Congress made such changes as "Water-closets" to "Toilets" in the late ’70s ("I’m absolutely flushed with pride," he responded when told this) but many of his criticisms still hold true.
Part of what makes Berman special is his large spirit and generosity. Besides his own writing, he has inspired and midwived books by others, on topics from comics librarianship to library service to poor people. Saying, "I can’t have information I know would be of interest to someone and not share it," Berman practices what he preaches. Fellow librarian Bill Katz calls him "a modern-day eccentric who, without the slightest hesitation, refuses to be anybody but himself."
Berman recently completed work on the 10th—and final—edition of Alternative Library Literature (McFarland), a biennial anthology he has co-edited with James Danky, newspapers/periodicals librarian at the Wisconsin Historical Society.
He recently spoke with Utne Reader librarian Chris Dodge from his home in Edina, Minnesota.
Which publications do you read regularly?
Local Twin Cities publications like the alternative weeklies Pulse and City Pages, and various-frequency local newsletters and tabloids: the Women Against Military Madness newsletter, Native American monthly The Circle, the Minnesota Women’s Press, the St. Stephen’s Shelter newsletter Open House, the Minnesota Alliance for Progressive Action newsletter Currents, free thought and atheist newsletters, and a load of other stuff, including Nonviolent Activist; the Long Haul from Vancouver, one of the foremost anti-poverty tabloids; Welfare Mother’s Voice (shortly to change its name to Mother Warriors Voice); Survival News out of Boston; and Street Spirit from San Francisco. The latter four represent authentic voices of people who are having a hard time economically.
What about television as a news source?
I find it lamentable and deficient. I’ve almost stopped watching commercial news broadcasts, as well as the highly vaunted cable news broadcasts, which tend to be almost impossibly biased but also clearly modeled to provide infotainment. What passes for dialogue is conducted at such a high decibel rate and such high speed that it’s obviously meant as theater, not serious discourse. Two exceptions are sometimes worthwhile. PBS’s TheNewsHour with Jim Lehrer, although I find their representation of the liberal or left viewpoint less than authentic. I don’t find people like Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky invited. And there’s a new show, Now with Bill Moyers. Moyers identifies and understands real issues, invites the right people, and gives them time to express their perspectives. He is probably the bright light of broadcasting. Then there’s C-SPAN, which is sometimes just boring Press Club speeches or news conferences, but on occasion you’ll actually see events that nobody else is covering—at least on television—like the Seattle World Trade Organization protests. C-SPAN seemed to be at the protests for almost the whole time; they just turn the camera on and record whatever happens, and that’s exactly what I like to see.
How did you get interested in the alternative press?
It’s what you could call a character trait or flaw represented most simply by one of those anarchist buttons that says "Question authority"—an orneriness that does not accept revealed truth from the usual sources as being necessarily the truth.
Do you listen to the radio?
Some classical music and world beat stuff. I try to plug into Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! show. Almost always it’s an enlightening or infuriating experience that may send me to the typewriter or the telephone.
What good films have you seen lately?
Bread and Roses, the Ken Loach film, a cinematic treatment of the Justice for Janitors movement in Los Angeles, has hardly had any screen time, yet it’s moving and well done. It has the extra value of being as much in Spanish as in English, with subtitles of course. It deals with social justice and labor issues that most commercial filmmakers are reluctant to approach.
An earlier work by the same director, Land and Freedom, is one of the best cinematic statements about the Spanish Civil War.
What experiences have mattered to you in a big way in your life?
Reading Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle had a profound impact on me when I was a kid. The cruelty, injustice, and insensitivity are powerfully portrayed.
What also was a profound impact—I hesitate to say spiritual because I don’t know what that means—but certainly in terms of moving me and engaging me was the whole experience of the ’60s, which began for me when I accepted an invitation from a co-worker at the District of Columbia Public Library to go to some kind of cockamamie poetry reading at a funky hotel, and I went—not altogether sure why the hell I was even going—and that night changed my life, my aesthetic, and my ideas about language and how it can be used with social consciousness and still be good poetry. All together in a dark and smoke-filled room were Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, and Leroi Jones (later Amiri Baraka). I’d never before heard that kind of poetic statement, fused with passion, politics, social consciousness, and beauty.
It led me to a recognition that may seem smug and even anti-intellectual, and if that’s true, well, the hell with it, but if poetry can’t be read out loud, it probably isn’t worth reading in the first place. Poetry like Walt Whitman, Vachel Lindsay, all the Beats.
What are some of the problems you see in media today?
A lot of what is produced by people who describe themselves as progressives or radicals relies unduly on a kind of in-group jargon, especially in academic works. It’s a kind of impenetrable terminology that makes what they’re saying—which may be quite important, even quite wonderful and necessary—inaccessible to many people.
My sense is that a lot of these people really want to change the world, want to inspire more than just a couple of people to get active, but the way they express themselves probably turns off more people than are turned on. When I see a term like "cultural hegemony," I know that they’re just talking to themselves, not trying to reach anyone else. Activist Abbie Hoffman was aware of that pitfall. So is filmmaker and author Michael Moore; in many ways, he is the present-day Abbie Hoffman.
What roles do libraries play in access to media?
Libraries represent the sole contemporary American institution with the potential for making available a wide-ranging, genuinely diverse spectrum of opinions, cultural expressions, and ideas in an environment that is commercial-free and huckster-free, a commons where people can gather and select, in an unintimidating atmosphere, whatever interests them, delights them, or even repels them—whatever they want to know about.
A lot of libraries live up to this potential, but there are disturbing trends toward commercialism. Selling naming rights to donors and corporate sponsors violates the contract with the public of being a neutral and noncommercial space. Naming is advertising.
Many libraries meet the challenge of diversity, but even the best are defective in collecting labor, anarchist, and free thought materials, and formats and genres like zines, comics, small press literature, and graphic erotica. Fees and fines discriminate against low-income people, and residency requirements for getting a library card may make it impossible for homeless people to use these public spaces and services.
Public libraries are the last refuge for genuine diversity and cultural excitement, but that promise is not altogether realized.