Library Synergy
Library Synergy
Library Synergy
Library Synergy
Library Synergy

Library Synergy

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BARC / Synergy 
By the 1960s, social protest movements in larger society were mirrored in American librarianship. Activist librarians became more socially aware through involvement in the causes and issues espoused by the era's alternative press and began to publish their own alternative library press. 

Synergy paved the way for Revolting Librarians, Booklegger Magazine, Emergency Librarian, Alternatives in Print, Prejudices & Antipathies, and all of the other alternative library publications. But Synergy's staff did more than spur interest in the alternative press. These librarians also urged library professionals to address social issues and to recognize the political context of their work. Ultimately, this threatened a profession that prided itself on its "neutral stance" by raising the important question--was librarianship "neutral" when it came to the provision of access to any form of information? 

In the late 1960s, the San Francisco Public Library's experimental Bay Area Reference Center (BARC) provided support reference services to 17 North Bay Cooperative Library System libraries scattered across six counties. BARC looked to non-commercial book publishers to find information on new areas of interest and in 1967 began to publish a monthly newsletter titled Synergy to serve as a reference tool and disseminate news of the project. Synergy's "Update" section listed outstanding new additions to the San Francisco Public Library reference collection, while another section included a bibliography of topical importance "not obtainable through usual channels."

San Francisco was a hotbed of social activity in 1967. From the city's 65,000-person anti-war demonstration held concomitantly with the Spring Mobilization Committee's New York City protest, to the influx of thousands of people for the "Summer of Love" activities, the Bay community manifested social change. Celeste West, Synergy's first editor, commented on the relationship between San Francisco's transformation and the local library scene. She described the city as "a trend-mecca--whether it be communal living, campus riots, gay liberation, independent film making ... you name it and we've got it." But what San Francisco had, she argued, was not reflected in library collections unless somebody took the time to pull together "the elusive printed material." Thus, Synergy began examining the nature of library card catalogs, indexes, and selecting tools because its staff believed that such tools were mostly "rear-view mirrors" that provided little or no bibliographic access to the public's current information needs. 

Synergy's staff believed that because librarians were not sufficiently trained to create access to and/or learn about where to find many forms of information, they were unable to fulfill their professional mandate to present balanced/multiple points of view. The passive nature of library practice grounded on a myth of "neutral" service understated this information access problem. Because librarians were followers and not leaders in the information marketplace, alternative press related topics received attention only when big publishers sensed profit. Synergy consistently included information about neglected topics.

The April-May, 1968 issue, for example, criticized conventional library literature's lack of attention to subjects like astrology, Native Americans, the women's liberation movement, ecology, the drug revolution, library service to prisoners, the occult, the family, the underground press, and the criticisms of the establishment. In subsequent issues, Synergy provided coverage of these and other topics. But Synergy stood for more than just information access. Under West's direction, it called on librarians to become "pivotal agents to enforce" the Library Bill of Rights, to support a free press, and to develop a new professional attitude by shifting from "conserving and organizing" information to "generating or promoting it."  Synergy defined an alternative library culture that worried less about the library as a keeper of the cultural record, and more about the library as an active agent for change. For a number of years, as part of its effort to provide information about the alternative press and alternative library activity, Synergy's staff lobbied for the "Great Unreviewed," which constituted "60%+ of all books published." Because standard reviewing journals like Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and Choice did not cover the alternative press, Synergy tried to fill the void. It encouraged subscribers to read intensively in their areas of specialty and to get involved in self-publication.

In August, 1973, the SRRT Newsletter announced that California State librarian Ethel Crockett was terminating federal funding for Synergy--the journal that jump-started the library social responsibility movement in 1967. 

The San Francisco Public Library talked publicly of taking over the magazine, but BARC feared censorship. BARC members recognized the library press was not free. In general, it was monopolized by a blend of associations and institutions and was controlled by particular publishing interests. Even the vanguard alternative library title Synergy, for example, was not only financially dependent on a federal grant, but each issue required San Francisco Public Library's approval before publication. The library had previously "bollixed five different reprint offers which might have brought in money," West argued, "choked creativity on the bone of prior censorship," and suppressed "protesting editorials." West maintained she had to kidnap the final Synergy issue from the printer just to get it published. Other staff members complained of "odd military-school-like reprimands" and threats that they would be denied legal salary increases. 

West argued that Crockett's real objection to the high impact periodical was not a question of money. Instead, she asserted, California governor Ronald Reagan had appointed Crockett state librarian, and in West's view, directed Crockett "to kill" Synergy--the flagship alternative library publication that fostered an attitude for change in the profession, gave rise to a wave of alternative library literature, provided a ground for library activists to express their opinions and make connections, and "upped the ante on library periodicals" at a time when most librarians remained the "purveyors of Reader's Digested Status Quo print." 

Toni Samek. (1998) Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility: An Ethos of American Librarianship, 1967-1973.

Revolting Librarians 
Fifty years ago, a group of self-described radical librarians published a manifesto: Revolting Librarians. Edited by Celeste West, Elizabeth Katz, and Anne Osborn, it’s one of the lasting monuments of the library underground, though the contributors surely never imagined this kind of respectful archiving. Thirty years on, its mixture of wild-eyed idealism and bleary-eyed realism is still a testament of solidarity with the enthusiastic, disgruntled or just plain bolshy librarian, the sort of thing that the Association of Assistant Librarians did so well before putting on a tie and becoming the Career Development Group. 

In 1972, West co-founded Booklegger Press, the first woman-owned American library publisher, with her partner at the time, librarian Sue Critchfield, and Valerie Wheat. The press' first publication was an anthology edited by West and Elizabeth Katz entitled Revolting Librarians. The anthology, which described biases in contemporary library practices and proposed alternative library models, sold 15,000 copies in three years.

The book includes freewheeling essays by library staff from around the United States and Canada on progressive topics ranging from outreach to migrant worker communities to combating pay inequity. It’s fascinating to read in 2022 what radical librarianship looked like in 1972- when this book was self-published in typewriter font and sold for $2 a copy by mail order. A lot has changed, but even more has stayed the same.

Librarians 50 years ago called out the disconnect between library workers on the frontlines and those who call the shots (top-down administration), die-hard shushing stereotypes, and systemic inequities that thwart access for many users. Others complained of irrelevant library school curricula and the difficulty of introducing new ideas into bureaucracies. Many of these issues linger.

In “Doing it: Migrant Workers Library,” Martha Powers Williams writes as one of two librarians in New Jersey who spent their own time providing weekly outreach at a migrant workers’ marketplace. She describes how important it was to reach people who wouldn’t otherwise make it to the library and laments that this couldn’t be part of their regular jobs. This hasn’t changed much. Outreach beyond library walls to underserved communities, despite some laudable examples, remains sparse- and pandemic staff shortages haven’t helped.

Likewise, many of the issues raised in “Trails of a Paraprofessional” by Judy Hadley, still ring true. Paraprofessionals often feel unseen and undervalued and note that they do much of the same work as librarians without the title or compensation. Simultaneously, several of the essayists question the value of the MLS degree, as summarized in “Library School Lunacy” by Harleigh Kyson.

Celeste West was a larger than life feminist librarian, lesbian, publisher, and activist. was a pioneering progressive librarian and co-editor of the now classic 1972 title REVOLTING LIBRARIANS.  Celeste passed away in San Francisco on January 3, 2008 at the age of 65. She was a pioneering progressive librarian and one of the founders of the Bay Area Reference Center (BARC), Booklegger Press, Synergy[Magazine], and Booklegger Magazine. 

From 1989 until 2006, Celeste worked as the library director at the San Francisco Zen Center. She was a radical library worker whose practice challenged established library traditions by encouraging librarians to speak up about the need for systematic change. West initiated questions and challenged assumptions (such as library neutrality) that continue to be central issues examined in critical librarianship today. 

Personality Matter Energy Space Time 
The Colon Classification scheme contains both the basic subjects and their facets (which contain isolates). A basic subject can stand alone but in contrast an isolate is a term that mediates a basic subject. To create a class number, the basic subject is named first. The isolates follow, entered according to a facet formula. This formula states that every isolate in every facet is a manifestation of one of the five fundamental categories -- personality, matter, energy, space, and time. Personality is the distinguishing characteristic of a subject. Matter is the physical material of which a subject may be composed. Energy is any action that occurs with respect to the subject. Space is the geographic component of the location of a subject. And time is the period associated with a subject. As mentioned above, there are five fundamental categories into which a subject or main class is divided. These are the five aspects of a subject.

Dr. Ranganathan named the five fundamental categories as PMEST, which is, Personality, Matter, Energy, Space and Time. A subject may have a Personality aspect, a Matter aspect, an Energy aspect, a Space aspect, and a Time aspect. 

Mathematician turned librarian Dr. S. R. Ranganathan (1892-1972) is deservedly called the father of the Indian library movement. Internationally recognized as the most prolific library thinker and innovative librarian of his time, his exemplary dedication and uncanny insights won him the acclaim of his peers the world over. His work forms the bedrock of an influential theory of the wide discipline of knowledge organization. His extensive work on all aspects of library science was epoch-making, and created a paradigm next in importance only to the pioneering work of Melvil Dewey (1851-1931), who is often considered the father of modern librarianship. Ranganathan's views, appeals, and the research findings he communicated through books, journals, reports, international seminars, and lectures, have pervaded, and still constitute, the core of our current knowledge of the subject. His books, on almost all branches of library and information science, are librarians' lore. 

The Colon Classification (CC), conceived and initially developed from 1924 to 1928, and initially applied in the Madras University Library, was first published in 1933 by the Madras Library Association (founded by Ranganathan in 1928). Being a mathematician and a close student of an inspiring teacher W.C.B. Sayers (1881-1960) in the School of Librarianship, University College London, Ranganathan was most attracted to classification studies. In his later work, he perceived many similarities between classification and mathematics. At the same time, practical classification by the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) did not satisfy his orderly mind. That being a "mark and park system" without any professed theory, he could assign more than one class number to a document, especially those dealing with compound and complex subjects. For example, "Anatomy of flowering plants" could either be given the class number of "Plant anatomy" or "Botany of flowering plants". It was a problematic option by default for all such compound subjects. In his view, this defeated the purpose of classification itself. Besides this, Ranganathan also found only a nominal representation of Indian subjects in the scheme. WASPish (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) bias in Dewey's system, as it is in other western systems, is well-known, even today. Indeed all KO systems are cultural and temporal in their making.

First, Ranganathan realized that the aftermath of World War I, 1914-1919, had brought in the emergence of specialized, micro, and interdisciplinary subjects, which the existing classifications failed to cope with. He diagnosed that DDC, because of its enumerative nature and 17th century roots, was a classification suited to the nineteenth century linear, mono-dimensional kind of literature. An enumerative classification by default is not able to assign coextensive class numbers to most compound and complex subjects except to some by coincidence.

Knowing the malady, the remedy could not have been far away. The problem occupied his mind relentlessly. In 1924, Ranganathan happened to visit Selfridge's department store in London, and accidentally stumbled on a demonstration of a Meccano toy kit. The salesman was making different toys from the same kit by permutation and combination of the blocks, strips, nuts, and bolts. That triggered his mind to adopt a similar technique to design different class numbers from the same subject concepts to suit individual documents. This idea later brought a paradigm shift in classification theory, practice, and research. He visualized that all knowledge is comprised of some basic and discrete concepts (call these building blocks of the universe of knowledge), which could be combined to construct class numbers to specifically suit a document, instead of assigning it a predetermined ready-made sort of pigeonhole class number. Connecting symbols in the form of punctuation marks served as his nuts and bolts to string together discrete concepts. Sayers at once commended the idea of the new technique, but warned him of the labour and patience required for the huge task ahead.

After long experience and a constant quest to generalize the various facets, in 1952 he came out with his famous, although debatable, theory of "five and only five fundamental categories" in the universe of knowledge. In the earlier editions, the facets were named variously in different main classes, e.g., problem facet, institution facet, substance facet, etc.. In the fourth edition these were highly generalized by an intuitive process of abstraction, and named as personality, matter, energy, space, and time, famously known as PMEST.

Three planes of work
Prior to Ranganathan, classification design was considered as an intuitive field, the domain of a few inspired geniuses. This is quite obvious from the work of Melvil Dewey (1851-1931), C.A. Cutter (1837-1903), and J.D. Brown (1862-1914). H.E. Bliss (1870-1955), who was singularly dedicated to classification studies, did base his Bibliographic Classification (1944-1953) on some concretely formulated principles which Ranganathan viewed as static theory. The first edition of CC was mostly based on intuition and unstated principles. Later he justified this approach by his belief that in the real world a practice precedes its theory: poetry emerged much earlier than poetics.

Nevertheless, Ranganathan soon crystallized the unconscious theory that had gone into the making of his CC from 1928 to 1933. This theory was precipitated in his magnum opus, Prolegomena to library classification (1937). Through comparative approach and by identifying the best practices in existing systems, he formulated a panoply of canons and postulates for designing and evaluating classification systems. Structuring his theory into canons was obviously borrowed from Sayers whom he always regarded as the first grammarian of library classification. In 1950, a great breakthrough was achieved in the design of classification by dividing it in three succeeding phases, called planes: idea plane, verbal plane, and notational plane. 

In his spirited quest for discovering a natural order of facets, Ranganathan proposed the idea of an "absolute syntax of facets", by which he meant a sequence in which component facets of a subject "arrange themselves in the minds of the majority of persons". Indeed, he conjectured that absolute syntax may be the "same for a large majority of persons irrespective of their mother tongues", so that absolute syntax and linguistic syntax do not necessarily coincide. He further believed that absolute syntax was close to his own PMEST citation order, arrived at by rigorous postulates and principles. The basic question is whether there exists such an absolute syntax of ideas in the minds of the majority of adults, free from the constant influence of the mother tongue and its grammar as impressed on human minds since infancy. Yet there is no empirical evidence that it exists at all. Nevertheless, as Iyer asserts, "If a particular way of structuring a subject can be easily understood in translation to another language, regardless of the linguistic variations of individual tongues, then an absolute syntax may exist at some level". Arthur Maltby points out that Ranganathan believed in knowledge synthesis rather than in its mere division for mapping and information retrieval; this makes the search for the absolute syntax of ideas worth pursuing by a highly varied interdisciplinary group of researchers.

The CC seems to confirm the sad experience that success of KOS is related less to their theoretical and research based qualities than to the strength of support for maintaining systems. The survival of the system in its present state seems uncertain because of long and callous neglect. The DDC is considered less advanced, but is the most successful classification. The → BISAC system is also becoming influential because of its support from the publishing industry. Although CC introduced a methodology of classification that has many advantages, and that remains a strong and distinct approach in knowledge organization, some of its assumptions are regarded by many today as utopian, or even undesirable. The idea of providing a universal standardized classification of knowledge seems to be in conflict with the realization that all KO systems are cultural and temporal in their making.

Having already subtly pervaded the making of new systems and getting sublimated into a theory, CC has achieved nirvana from bodily avatar. Transcending the cycle of life and death, it has become a subliminal tool of information retrieval and knowledge mapping.

Sandy Berman 
Sandy Berman taught me that you could break the rules and still be a cataloger.

I heard about him on my very first day of library school, as a matter of fact. My cataloging professor told us about a guy in Minnesota who started assigning subject headings to fiction despite the Library of Congress's protests. I thought that was a pretty cool thing to do and couldn't understand why LC would have a problem with it. (I was so young, I was so naïve.) I soon decided that Sandy Berman was a swell guy, and I keep finding more evidence of this all the time.

Sandy Berman has influenced an entire generation of librarians by showing that activism and librarianship can co-exist. He challenged the notion of what it was to be a librarian and expanded the parameters of librarianship. For him, there was no separation between the personal and the political. He was a strong advocate for the oppressed, sexual freedom and alternative press. He was an untiring crusader against the racist, sexist, obscure and unclear subject headings assigned by the Library of Congress, so much so that the Library of Congress felt obligated to respond occasionally to his petitioning.

More than any other, he liberated information. If he had information to share, he did. He distributed his "Sandy packets" to those who could make the most use of them. There was a passion about his involvement and work accomplishments. Even the abrupt end to his career was handled with personal integrity by standing firm at a great cost for what he believed in. He will continue to serve as a role model for generations of librarians to come.

Ten Things I Love About Sandy Berman

  1. He looks great in a dashiki
  2. The Joy of Cataloging: Essays, Reviews, Letters, and Other Explosions
  3. The toilet he made of the Library of Congress's water closet
  4. He added "coprophilia" to my vocabulary
  5. He adds more subject headings per capita than any other cataloger
  6. He disseminates knowledge as fast as a speeding postal carrier will allow
  7. He leaps tall bureaucracies in as many bounds as it takes
  8. He makes libraryland safe and accessible for the Acronymically challenged; Belly dancers; Chan, Jackie; the Decriminalization of marijuana; Erotic humor; Frisbee; Gay poets, prisoners, & socialists; Heterosexuality; and much, much, more
  9. I've learned more by his example than I could ever learn by the teaching of any LIS program [if only I were in an IS program!]
  10. He wears LOVE in his love beads - Jenna Freedman

Way back in 1995 I somehow became exposed to Charles Willett's Librarians @ Liberty, and through subscribing and reading it learned about Sandy Berman's career and writings. This gave me the inspiration to finally choose a path in life, and soon I went off to library school, full of inspiration (which made me something of an oddity there). During my first year in the program (1996-97) Sandy was a star in the library constellation; I knew him as a crusading author of books and articles and as a newsmaker. (LC changed the "Man" subject headings that year.) The following summer I went to the ALA conference in San Francisco, and attended the Free Speech Buffet. I was talking to Noel Peattie, who was still publishing SIPAPU, I think, and I mentioned reading something of Sandy's. The next thing I knew he was taking me across the room to introduce me to a tall, bearded man with a big sweet voice, who was Sandy Berman. Sandy gave me a greeting that I will always remember for its warmth and kindness. He put his arm around me and walked me over to the table set up by the Down There Press, and showed me a book of erotic photography which had his preferred cataloging printed right alongside LC's Cataloging in Publication. The two examples of cataloging communicated two entirely different perceptions of the world as a whole, and Sandy was proud and happy to show me the difference, the difference between the world as he knows it and the world according to the Library of Congress. I want to thank you, Sandy, for welcoming me into a more colorful library world, as you have so many others, and for inspiring me to treat librarianship as a mission and to try to practice it with lots of humanity. I feel slightly rude making a personal thanks in public - because I know I wouldn't be able to say it the same, and "remembering Sandy" in the third person feels a little like talking about him as though he were dead, somewhat unnatural. So, if I am not at that dinner in New Orleans, here's a long distance toast! To health and happiness and Sanford Berman! - Rory Litwin

I had long heard of the indefatigable Sandy Berman when I was a MLS student at Columbia University back in the mid-eighties. Cataloging professors there spoke of Berman in tones of rankled exasperation, which bordered on petulant hostility. That this lone gadfly of accessible subject headings was able single-handed to promote a relentless social perspective upon the entrenched, thoroughly Euro-centric, male dominant and quasi-racist LC classification system seemed to perturb the cosseted world of their tidy intellectual privilege. To listen to them, was to believe that one uppity barbarian out in the hinterland of Minnesota might single-handedly crash the gates of Caucasoid superiority enshrined so rightly, as they fervently believed, in the cannons of 19th century library-speak.

It wasn't until my colleague and friend at NYPL, Wendy Thomas, current chair of SRRT, invited me to attend a meeting of progressive librarians, which ultimately formed the organization PLG, at the Empire State College School of Labor Relations on 42nd St. in the fall of 1989, that I finally got to meet the fabled barbarian of Minnesota. Well, Sandy had the bulk and beard of a barbarian, but from the moment we shook hands, I knew I was in the presence of an old socialist soul with an impish twinkle to his eye, coupled with a fine sense of humor and a warm personality that was utterly disarming.

Two years later, in 1991 while attending a conference in Minneapolis, I had the privilege to meet Sandy again trough my friend Chris Dodge. Chris and his wife Jan DeSirey, Sandy and his delightful wife Lorraine, and I met for supper in a ribs dive somewhere out in a rough and tumble neighborhood of the hood and it was from that enjoyable evening that my ten-year friendship with Sandy began over chitlins and cheap beer.

We have been comrades in arms ever since. Sandy's undying support of the work Chris Dodge and I did around the Columbus Quincentennial back in 1991-1992 proved invaluable. Almost weekly Sandy's famous packages would arrive in my mailbox, the trademark recycled envelopes crammed with god-knows-what-all, pamphlets, radical broadsides, newspaper clippings, even the stub of a electric utility bill once, and the inevitable words of encouragement. (I believe to this day, that this is how Sandy cleared the junk off his desk, by mailing it to all his pals around the globe in those tatty envelopes armored with tape and staples. Whatta guy!) In all the years since, I have never known Sandy to be anything less than a champion of the underdog. Only his bout with heart trouble some years back, about the time of his wife's death, slowed this fierce bear of principle and decency down.

But now of course, just when he deserved a rousing entry into retirement as a Sequoia amid the drab shrubbery of our profession, that, furthermore, such a stalwart should be shamed and humiliated by the pinhead management of the Hennepin County Library this past spring, a spineless cabal as we now plainly see who "promoted" Sandy into the dustbin of professional obscurity, is utterly unconscionable. Shame on the pooh-bahs at HCL!

In summation, I can only say as one lone voice in library-land that Sandy Berman has been for me from my first days as a library student, a beacon of decency, common sense, socialist ideals and deep humanity. I am honored to call him my friend and feel that even if HCL is too hidebound to honor its best and brightest, then we, meaning SRRT, PLG and other concerned library workers, would do well to honor Sandy in some meaningful fashion at Mid-winter in San Antonio, perhaps at PLG's 10 year anniversary. You're a better man than I, Sandy Berman. Thanks for being there for the rest of us. - Peter McDonald

Sandy Berman--I heard about him and read about him while in library school 26 years ago. He was essentially the only practitioner or theoretician in librarianship addressing the relationship between library services and library users. Occasionally someone who is in tune with the people materializes--someone who can be nothing except active in the cause of humanity and humaneness; someone who disregards all received societal boundaries. Librarianship has had few such revolutionaries, and Sandy must be counted as a true revolutionary. Even as bombs destroy civilization in Yugoslavia, as society inches toward barbarism, revolutionaries like Sandy Berman remain our only link to a society that might someday be free of repression, poverty, homelessness, greed, exploitation.

Thank you, Sandy. - A. Ralph Papakhian