Alex Wright

Sandy Berman, Freetagging Old School

January 24, 2005

Back in the 1970s, Sanford (Sandy) Berman, the head cataloger at Hennepin County Library in Minnesota, did something librarians rarely do: He started making up his own subject headings.

Flouting the prevailing Library of Congress cataloging standards, Berman sparked a movement of radical librarianship determined to loosen LC's federal grip over the catalog. Articulating his philosophy of personalized cataloging, Berman argued passionately against putting too much faith in institutional classification systems:

Why catalog locally? And why not outsource the whole operation? Because critical, creative catalogers within individual systems are the last and only bulwarks against the often error-laden, access-limiting, and alienating records produced by giant, distant, and essentially unaccountable networks and vendors. For thirty-odd years, Berman railed against what he considered LC's archaic, institutionalized and sometimes offensive terms (e.g. "Bushman"). For example, Berman discarded the term "Aged" in favor of "Seniors," and introduced new, previously unauthorized terms into his catalog like "Gay Rights," "Apartheid," "Chinese New Year" and "Punk Rock Music" - subject headings that Berman used freely in his catalog years (sometimes decades) before they found their way into the official LC system.

Berman gained such a following among other catalogers that his tags gained widespread adoption in libraries all over the country, threatening LC's monopoly on classification. Berman's headings proved so influential that one LC staffer felt moved to describe him this way: Sandy Berman is a major pain in the ass. He runs a horse-and-buggy cataloging operation in Minnesota and he thinks he can tell us how to do our jobs. He's an insufferable, self-righteous, unrealistic, na�ve, head-in-the-clouds idealist who knows nothing about the real world of grind-it-out bibliographic data.* Could Berman be the original freetagger?

more on Sanford Berman

Addendum: Whit reports that "at the Observer (Ocean County, not 'London') a long-gone librarian memorably had created a file titled 'Perverts' into which she dumped a few clips about pedophiles."

* Correction (6/25/07): Alert reader K.R. Roberto of the University of Denver's Penrose Library writes in to set me straight on the above quote, wrongly attributed to a Library of Congress member. It turns out the quote is a fake; it originated in a humorous essay by Will Manley entitled "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sandy Berman But Were Afraid to Ask.

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