The Dark Side of Dewey

Jamie Prince, Phil Cunningham and Eric Mortensen

Melville Dewey was born in 1851 in Adams Center, New York, into a deeply religious family in a deeply religious area of the state. The area of upstate New York was known as the “Burned-over district” for its many religious reformist movements. Dewey showed an early affinity for organization and making money. He was known to have cataloged his mother’s pantry, and kept detailed accounting of his personal financial earnings. As a teenager he taught school, and found the experience so meaningful that he cried when he left. He then felt it was his purpose in life to become a teacher.

He attended Amherst College, where many of his personality traits began to further develop. Though he disdained such vices as alcohol and tobacco, he was known to spend much time with girls. He also began working in the library while at Amherst, and continuing after his graduation in 1874.

It was after graduation that he changed the spelling of his first name to M-e-l-v-i-l (removing the ‘le’). Five years later he changed the spelling of his last name to D-u-i, reflecting another of his passions: spelling reform of the English language.

He had originally wanted to be a missionary, and applied this zeal to teaching and libraries. He spent two years investigating practices at several libraries, leading to publication of his classification system for libraries in 1876. The idea of a system allegedly came to him while in church. The Dewey system arranged knowledge into a decimal system which was easy to use, and scalable for large or small libraries. He spent the rest of his life encouraging libraries to adopt his system.

Dewey played a major role in the founding of the American Library Association in 1876, and served as Secretary, and later President of ALA. He was also the editor of Library Journal for a time. In 1883 he became librarian at Columbia College in New York City.

While the Board of Trustees approved Dewey’s plan to open a library school in January 1887, the trustees balked at admitting women, and denied Dewey permission to use Columbia classrooms. Dewey opened the school with 17 women students and three men, and held class in an unused storeroom above a chapel. His library staff, including women, taught classes. He brought in outside lecturers such as Caroline Hewins, a pioneer in children’s libraries. This set a trend of a predominance of women in the profession, which continues to this day.

Dewey was single minded and not politically astute. He made enemies among faculty members at Columbia who sought to oust him. Dewey resigned, moving on to become the State Librarian in Albany, and taking his library school with him.

His professional abilities contrasted with poor relationships with other humans. In all his dealings he was overzealous and obsessed with efficiency. Besides librarianship, he also zealously pursued spelling reform, adoption of the metric system, shorthand, and the use of bicycles. Harassment of and inappropriate relationships with women followed him throughout his life. After the 1905 ALA conference several women finally complained; Dewey’s influence began to wane as he was plagued by scandals. Also in 1905 he was forced to resign as State Librarian due to his anti-Semitic views. His racial attitudes came out in his control over the Lake Placid Club. He excluded Jews, African-Americans, and Cubans, among other groups, and gave “acceptability” ratings to those he did admit.

The Dewey Decimal System is used in most public, school, and academic libraries to this day. However, in analyzing the classification system, Dewey’s nineteenth-century biases on race, religion, and other areas are clearly visible. The 200s, Religion, consist of 200-290 as divisions of knowledge about Christianity. Judaism and Islam receive only one number each (296 and 297). His classifications for history, literature, and languages, are largely devoted to English and other Western European languages, with minimal attention to other parts of the world.

Melvil Dewey certainly contributed a great deal to our modern society, particularly in libraries. However, there was a dark side to his genius, and his world view is reflected in his Dewey Decimal system, still widely used around the world to this day.

Bibliography and Credits
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Wikipedia (1886) Smartly dressed couple seated on an 1886-model quadracycle for two The South Portico of the White House, Washington, D.C., in the background. Retrieved from (1876) Graduating Class, Columbia College, ‘76”. Published in Brown, Henry Collins, ed. Valentine’s Manual of the City of New York for 1916-7 New Series, (New York: The Valentine Company, 1916), before p. 123.


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