Snapshot: Sid Berger
By Katharine Dunn, Dean's Editorial Fellow
Sid Berger wears many hats: He is currently the Ann C. Pingree Director of the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, which houses many of the original transcripts of the witchcraft trials along with a vast collection of other historical, artistic, and genealogical materials. It is the third largest library in an art museum in the country. He's the owner/operator of a press (in his house), for which he hand prints books of poetry and other works, some by Pulitzer Prize winners. He's a paper maker. He has been an English, Communications, and GSLIS professor at Simmons since 2002. In GSLIS, he teaches History of the Book and Rare Books and Special Collections Librarianship. "I think [History of the Book] is a really important class and should be required," he says. "No matter what area of librarianship you're going into, even if it's IT, you have to know about books as artifacts, how they are made, how they have been used and abused."
Tell me a bit about your job at the Phillips Library.
It's one of those wonderful jobs; I do so many things that it's never boring. The two major things I do are write reports and go to meetings. As a director of a library I have to oversee the budget, acquisitions, and cataloging; I deal with donors, trustees, and overseers; I give talks. I do everything. It's really fun.
How familiar with the library were you before you got this job? I knew it only sketchily. I've learned a lot, and I know it well now. I do administrative work and I still don't know it as well as the librarians do. I buy for the library, which is the fun part.
What have you bought lately?
We're bidding today on a very rare item. Since the museum has a great maritime collection, we look for unusual things in the maritime world. About a year ago we bought a sketch book of sailors' tattoos for a tattoo parlor. The owner of the parlor could just show the sketchbook of dozens of tattoo designs to a sailor, and he would pick out the one he wanted. Well, the one we're bidding on today is a semaphore manuscript. If you're on a ship and you want to communicate with another ship, they didn't have walkie talkies or iPhones; they would put flags and pennants onto the rigging of the ship to communicate with other ships. The book is a manuscript on those pennants, and it is a really rare one; it's from the War of 1812. [Ed. note: The bid was successful.]
The library has many of the legal papers related to the 1692/93
They actually belong to the state, but the state didn't have a proper place for them. The Phillips Library was founded in 1799, but the family had been collecting for a century or so before that, so it was the logical place to put the papers. They're fully digitized and completely available on the web, so we never have to show them to patrons anymore because they're pretty fragile. If any user has a legitimate need for the originals, we'll certainly bring them out. But you'll get a better view of them online because online you can enlarge them and observe them greatly magnified.
What are the library's most popular collections?
In a historical library as ours is, there's always the genealogist contingent. But many of those people using genealogy materials are not genealogists; they're novelists and historians writing historical fiction or fact. True genealogists are maybe 10% of our users. The strongest collections we have are East Asia, the Maritime collection, American decorative arts, and the historical collection, which is local history plus New England. These are the most used collections.
"Everyone in one way or another is involved in books and manuscripts and archival materials. All people in the library need to know about books."
How did you move from English to LIS?
It was a logical thing. As an English professor for many years, I taught the history of the book, design in printing, printing on a hand press, paper making, book collecting, book appraisal, and other book-related classes and workshops. For history of the book, part of the course had to do with how libraries were founded, how they're run, what's their function, and of course, censorship and legal issues. And after being a professor for 18 years, and 24 years of teaching, I was in a situation in which I was going to too many committee meetings. I was grading papers left and right, day and night. I had a colleague or two who were not perfectly congenial to work with. I figured I had done my time in English. I had been a devotee of libraries since I was a wee tyke. I was living in Champaign, Ill., and I figured I might as well get a library degree, not thinking I would shift professions. And then a job came up that was pretty awesome, at the American Antiquarian Society.
You like old things, is that fair to say?
I like new things, too.
You're not a Luddite?
No! I love my computer.
You love the physicality of books. Do you worry that people don't
read enough anymore, and that maybe books are going to
Do you know that last year in this country alone, more than 200,000 new titles were published? I'm not talking about electronic. No, I'm not worried about the future of books. More books are being published now than ever before in history. More than 2 ½ million books are still in print in the U.S. alone, and the number of publishers keeps going up. I think we're close to 100,000 publishers in the U.S. now. The big publishers that used to publish in 22 different areas are now publishing in only six. All these little publishers are picking up the niche publishing areas. I mean, I can be a publisher. I can sign up with the Library of Congress and publish books and get my own ISBNs.
Aren't you a publisher?
Yeah, I am. I print my own books, but I haven't done one in several years. I've been too busy. I'm in the middle of printing a book of poems.
How long does it take to print a book of poetry, start to finish?
If I did nothing but that, I could do it in six months.
How long have you printed books?
I started in 1965. I was in graduate school. My very first semester, one of my professors came into the class and he brought in a poem that he had printed in a beautiful little pamphlet. He said there's a print shop on campus, and one of the world's great printers, Kim Merker, teaches courses on printing here. As soon as that class was over, I went down to the basement and I introduced myself to him. I worked for him for six years. I wrote a book about him later on. He is one of the great book designers of the 20th century.
What's the appeal of hand printing?
The final product is beautiful, it's important. I try not to do things that are not important. It's therapeutic. You're setting type, inking up the type, putting paper into the press. You can't mess up. You can't get the letters upside down; you can't put the paper into the press wrong; you have to ink the type properly by hand for each pull of the press. It takes tremendous concentration to do it. And when you're concentrating that hard, your back pain disappears, your bills go away, the fact that you're hungry — you don't even think about that. And when the press is congenial to you and going along smoothly, and you're listening to Gilbert & Sullivan on your record player, which I do, or Bach or Beethoven, it's heaven.
Why is it important?
It is important for me because I print only what I think are important texts. The Donald Justice book [Banjo Dog] has four poems about the Great Depression, and they're wonderful poems. The Thom Gunn book [Lament] that I did has the first poem ever published about the death of someone from AIDS. So I like to think I'm contributing an important text to the world in a handmade, quality book.
You teach History of the Book. Why is it important for
What does the word library mean? Liber, book. I don't care where you work, even if you do nothing but technical stuff on the computer, what are you doing but creating access. The result is that you're linking patrons up with information they need. So everyone in one way or another is involved in books and manuscripts and archival materials. All people in the library need to know about books. My History of the Book course tells them a few things. There are a lot of courses I would like to teach here: bibliography, the history of paper in the scholarly world, medieval codicology. Maybe when I retire about 60 years from now, I can teach them.