Sandy Berman's Last Stand

For 26 years Hennepin County's head cataloger led the charge for libraries of, by, and for the people. When he took aim at a new target this spring, his boss fired back.

The memo was all of three paragraphs.

Granted, one of those paragraphs included a run-on sentence that was a couple of hundred words long, with four parenthetical asides and a colon--its author was, after all, Sanford "Sandy" Berman--but nevertheless, most who read the memo would agree that it was organized into three paragraphs.

It was a Monday, this past January 18, and Berman had wedged himself into his small cubicle in suburban Plymouth's library administration headquarters, turning his attention to his manual Remington typewriter. Its metal keys had not a speck of dust on them. The black ribbon was fresh. What he had in mind was a simple three-paragraph note--something quick, well-reasoned, and noisy.

Tony Nelson

On that winter morning, Berman was at his station as head cataloger for the Hennepin County Library (HCL) system, as he had been since 1973. For a man in charge of more than a dozen catalogers, Berman wasn't fond of hierarchies--thus his conviction that "Supervisors should be accessible and not occupy some sort of mystified space or be up on some metaphoric pedestal!" And so Berman's cubicle was the exact size as all the others there.

As he tapped away on a sheet of HCL note paper--"Building a Great Library," it read--Berman took the liberty of explaining himself in prose thick with ampersands and blobs of correction fluid, typed-over letters, and words shoehorned into the seemingly nonexistent spaces between lines. High-tech spell check? Laser printing? Berman's memo, as it rolled from the typewriter, a bit crumpled and smudged at the edges, had the visceral stink and charm of an era that's all but gone. He opened cheerily, with "many thanks" to Bill DeJohn and Carla Dewey of MINITEX, a state-funded network of libraries based at the University of Minnesota; he argued his points, then closed "with warmest regards" and signed off with a flourish--an outsize S, his own Zorro mark.

Berman copied the missive to three of his superiors--HCL director Charles Brown, technical services manager Sharon Charles, and technical services assistant manager Elizabeth Feinberg--and didn't give it a second thought. After all, he wrote several of them every week. As he saw it, the note was simply a response to a memo that had been sent around the week before concerning pending changes in how the HCL handled the business of cataloging library materials--that is, how the county's 26 libraries organize and classify books, periodicals, videos, CDs, and other media for patrons to find when they search the online catalogs. As the chief in charge of cataloging operations, Berman figured the higher-ups spearheading the project might want his two cents worth on the matter.

But a few weeks later, Berman's supervisors, who have office doors that close, tapped him a little note in response. It was five paragraphs long, but had a more clipped tone than his January 18 memo: It was a formal, written reprimand. Brown and Feinberg informed Berman that they viewed his communiqué as "inappropriate" and that it constituted a violation of the county's Human Resources Rules of Conduct. They advised, "You have the right as a citizen to express your opinion. You may not initiate discussion of that opinion on work time nor route that opinion to staff at work." And they cautioned that "further counterproductive behavior" would prompt "further discipline."

Three paragraphs, or five, can change a man's life.

The avuncular, 65-year-old Berman wasn't ready to leave his $59,000-a-year post yet, but as events unfolded in the months after composing his memo--his push to have the reprimand withdrawn failed, after which he was reassigned without prior notification to a different position--wound up resigning, in disgust. Still bitter about his departure from the library system he'd helped build into a nationally distinguished model, Berman calls the exit a "forced retirement."

These days he has plenty of time to be padding around his Edina house in socks, an "Alternative Library Literature" T-shirt, and blue jeans. The shirt commemorates the most recent edition of the biennial journal Berman co-edits, one devoted to compiling cutting-edge material on library-related issues; the comic-strip-art cover parodies a pulp paperback and depicts a 1930s-style raid by cops bursting in on an illicit backroom publishing operation. From his closetlike home office, equipped with two Olympia manual typewriters, Berman is leading a one-man retribution campaign. Since late February he's been steadily photocopying any and all documents related to his departure from Hennepin County--memos, printouts of e-mail, declarations of support, letters of outrage to the library administration--and stuffing them into bulging envelopes to send out to friends, colleagues, the library press, and kindred spirits around the nation: his own guerrilla clipping service.

When those mailings in turn generate stories in trade publications such as Library Journal or still other letters of protest, Berman copies those and stuffs them in the mail, too. With each, he encloses a typed note or, often, simply his scrawled S. He is afflicted by what one fellow cataloger dubs a "compulsive" need to bestow information on anyone and everyone he thinks might find it beneficial. Retiring, it seems, hasn't cured him a bit. Berman recognizes the fixation--the very trait that triggered his resignation. "I can't have information I know would be of use to someone and not share it," he's been quoted as saying, with not a hint of remorse in his voice.

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