Libraries and marriages : vous dites raisonnable! par Carol Reid

Libraries and marriages : vous dites raisonnable!*
par Carol Reid

Bad libraries, like bad marriages, used to be a matter of relative privacy. But, as with everything else, we’ve learned some things. For some, the problem is an autocratic patriarch (or matriarch). Others quarrel over the children. Many fight about money. Quite a few form questionable alliances. But, as long as the lines of communication are kept open, such sticking points can often be convincingly resolved. Perhaps the most alarming trend then, or at least one we seem to be hearing a lot more about lately, is the attempt by library administrators to quell communications and quiet their critics, especially those from within the « family. »

Take the case of Sanford Berman, the up till now irrepressible Minneapolis maverick, who has gained the admiration, bordering on hero worship, of librarians worldwide. He is the author and editor of numerous books and articles about cataloging, social responsibilities, and intellectual freedom in libraries. Through persistent petitioning he has persuaded the Library of Congress to drop or amend hundreds of outdated, inaccurate, and politically incorrect subject headings (most famously, « Jewish Question » and « Yellow Peril ») and to add countless others. Berman has given many inspiring addresses and won several major awards. Though still alive (thankfully, after a serious surgery last spring), a festschrift has already been published in his name.

It is because of him that the Hennepin County Library has acquired the outstanding reputation among catalogers that it currently enjoys. HCL’s records, especially its fiction records, are of the highest quality, surpassing those of LC itself. Where LC subject headings prove inadequate, catalogers now borrow Hennepin headings instead. As head of Cataloging there, he had also elected to depart from Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, by writing out or translating obscure abbreviations and Latinisms, and avoiding unnecessary punctuation. All in the noble aim of increased « accessibility and intelligibility, » as one bemoaning admirer wrote to American Libraries, in the wake of Berman’s sudden and unimaginable retirement.

Hennepin, you see, had recently been asked to become a major contributor to OCLC, an online database of bibliographic records. In the press release announcing this fact, Berman’s part was warmly acknowledged. However, back at work, he was being rebuked for having stated his opinion to staff that HCL should insist on OCLC paying royalties for some of their records, for having failed to be in lockstep with AACR2, and for objecting to a PR-skewed misquoting of his views. While unsure of the business aspect, I suspect he had a point, and, as the man of the hour, was in a good position to push it. When his boss refused to withdraw the reprimand and continued to harass Berman privately, while « praising Caesar » publicly, ultimately « kicking him upstairs » to produce a manual on the type of cataloging for which he had put them on the map, Berman had finally had enough and disgustedly decided to resign.

He had also been upbraided a couple of years ago for the « insubordination » of speaking out against his library’s bizarre proposal to double the overdue fines on children’s books as a means of increasing revenues. Jane Rustin, director of the Allegany County Library System, in Maryland, who also believed that the kids in her library were being ill-served, felt similarly at pains to relinquish her post in November 1998 when the library board cobbled together a filtering policy in too-ready response to the admonishments of three area ministers about the ensnarements of the Net. Presumably, like Berman, she felt that political concerns had overridden professional ones.

Another library director who was unable to withstand the force of facile change-mongers was West Virginia’s Fred Glazer, described by John Berry, the editor of Library Journal, as « arguably, one of the greatest state librarians in the history of our nation. » During 24 years of dedicated (or, as American Libraries’ Will Manley sadly put it, « joyous ») service, Glazer managed to increase the number of public libraries in that often benighted state from 25 to 179. He also raised the amount of money allocated them from five cents per capita in 1972 to $3.81 in 1996, which put them in the top five nationwide. Glazer died from kidney failure a year and a half after his « nasty shove out the door. » The cause of death did not, but no doubt should have listed a broken heart, and the stress of being assailed by yuppie downsizers as well.

Although the Leroy C. Merritt Humanitarian Fund of the American Library Association gave funds to help Glazer fight his unjust firing, which, according to Berry, « reek[ed] of political and professional vendetta, personal disloyalty and jealousy, and incredible misuse of the power of the state, » it was tragically a case of too little, too late. Although the ridiculously low salary advertised for his replacement attracted very few applicants, the state commission eventually gave the job to David Price, who, amid controversy over his management abilities, had left two different California libraries—most egregiously the San Francisco Public Library, where he supervised the contentious opening of their new facility.

Sometimes the ethical catalyst that leads to such upsets has to do with a perception of the way employees in general are being treated. This is what happened here at the Albany Public Library, long a site of physical disrepair and staff disaffection. One fateful day in 1993, the director decided to dock the pay of managers who had chosen to close the library and send people home during a blizzard. This penurious act proceeded to snowball as it attracted the detritus of those workers’ wintry discontent, along with some local and national media attention. Subsequently, the library’s employees joined a union and the director eventually stepped down.

Most librarians possess a fundamental belief, intuitive or practiced, in intellectual freedom, or freedom of speech. So it tends to rankle when they’re told not to talk, or even, as is their celebrated wont, to whisper amongst themselves. In Hawaii, it was an interoffice « gag order » that galvanized the mobilization culminating in the cancellation of the outsourcing contract with Baker & Taylor, the firing of the State Librarian, and the legislative edict against further such outsourcing in Hawaii libraries. Again, as I always say, nothing backfires quite so satisfyingly as censorship does.

As in Hawaii, bad publicity has forced the main players to move on, yet fallout from the San Francisco Public Library « book dumping » debacle continues to cast a pall over its long-suffering staff, notably one distinguished children’s librarian, who « just happened » to have been the primary signatory on a petition protesting the ill-conceived plans for the New Main Library, and was then falsely accused of child molestation and hitting on female colleagues (despite his being openly gay) and summarily fired from his job three years ago. Fortunately, SFPL is a union shop and the local is at long last taking up his cause.

One of the rarest qualities, and therefore most prized in my estimation, is the ability of those in authority to concede an error, or confess that a wrong has been done. Most such people, perhaps out of a nagging need to justify how it is they merit so much more money than their coworkers, invest tremendous amounts of energy rationalizing these things, because to allow their own fallibility might be to suggest that they do not deserve their exalted status. It is for this reason that I was so gratified, after slogging grimly through the all-too-predictable stories recounted here, to have come across one about a librarian in Victoria, British Columbia—a lovely place where I am lucky to have an uncle now living, once again due to the inability of those in high places to admit the colossal mistake that was the Vietnam War—fired during the fifties for at one time having edited a left-wing publication.

Half a century later, the Greater Victoria Public Library has publicly apologized to this former employee, and acknowledged the grave insult to both him and our wonderful, freedom-loving profession that such a craven and conformist move implied. Canada is often characterized as a more censorious place than America, with our vaunted Bill of Rights, but in this humble and belated act of contrition, they evinced a greater regard for the rights of the individual and intellectual freedom than some wielders of library power in this country have recently shown themselves to possess.


* Le titre est de HERMÈS.

Pour connaître un peu plus sur Sanford Berman et écouter une conférence sur ce site :

Talking the Talk and Walking the Walk: What Libraries Say They Do but Frequently Don’t

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