Sanford Berman: father of radical cataloging

Written By: Papercut Zine Library Published: Jun 17th, 2012

Unless you’re a librarian or going to school to become one, it’s pretty unlikely you’ve ever heard of Sanford Berman. By the time you finish this blog post, he might just edge out your friendly neighborhood zine librarian for the title of “raddest librarian”

As any librarian can tell you, thorough and accurate description of an item is hard work. In the library world, we use controlled vocabularies so that information can be organized, found and retrieved efficiently and effectively. Since the Library of Congress is so huge, they’ve done a lot of the work of describing A LOT of books. It would make sense then that the most commonly used controlled vocabulary for cataloging in the English speaking world is the LC Subject heading list. There are a lot of problems with that list! The Library of Congress is the national library of the United States of America and as a result of that, their subject heading list carries the biases inherent in that. One example: LCSH uses the heading “Burma” for “Republic of the Union of Myanmar” and “Armenian Massacre” for “Armenian Genocide”.

So what does this have to do with Sanford Berman? In 1968 Berman moved to Lusaka, Zambia and worked as a library assistant at the University of Zambia’s library. Like thousands of other libraries all over the world the University of Zambia used LCSH subject headings in their catalogs. When it was brought to Berman’s attention that one of these headings was a term akin to a highly offensive racial epithet in the U.S., the seeds for his seminal work, the 1971 book, Prejudices and Antipathies: A Tract on the LC Subject Heads Concerning People. In the introduction to Prejudices and Antipathies Berman lays it down:

…In the realm of headings that deal with people and cultures — in short, with humanity — the LC list can only ‘satisfy’ parochial, jingoistic Europeans and North Americans, white-hued, at least nominally Christian (and preferably Protestant) in faith, comfortably situated in the middle and higher-income brackets, lagely domiciled in suburbia, fundamentally loyal to the established order, and heavily imbued with the transcendent, incomparable glory of western civilization. Further, it reflects a host of untenable – indeed, obsolete and arrogant assumptions.

Tireless in his efforts to rid the Library of Congress subject heading list of “humanity-degrading, intellect-constricting rubbish” Berman sent letters like THIS and THIS much to the chagrin (and sometimes annoyance) of LC catalogers. He started Fully aware of injustice in the real world (not that the “bibliographic universe” isn’t part of the “real world”…) Berman didn’t limit himself to calling out LC. HERE is a letter he sent to American Libraries after the Occupy Wall Street Library was trashed, and HERE is to President Obama about Egypt.

“Zine” is now an official LC subject term thanks to Berman, as is “Transgender People”. THIS “scorecard” shows changes to LC’s subject list made just between 2004 – 2009…pretty awesome.

If you’re interested in reading more about Sanford Berman check out this awesome web zine: KISS MY FILING INDICATORS #1

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