Melvil Dewey was born in 1851 in a part of New York known as the “Burned Out District.” It got the name from the evangelical fervor that led to so many religious reform movements. His parents shared that fervor. (Of course, they spelled his name Melville. He changed it later.)
As a young boy, he had a passion both for learning and organization. He organized his mother’s pantry to make it more efficient when he was 5. At age 13, he bought an unabridged dictionary for himself, declaring it the most essential book. At age 15, he decided on a career as reformer, although he had no idea yet just what to reform.
A stint of teaching school provided his first target, and he enrolled in Amherst College in Massachusetts in 1870. He reorganized its library and invented the Dewey Decimal Classification.
Dewey had a mental illness now known as obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. We often speak of someone suffering from a disease, but in this case, it’s not the person with the disorder who suffers as much as people associated with him.
Its hallmarks include obsession with cleanliness, preoccupation with lists and rules, lack of social skills, and tremendous energy for accomplishment. He had great success in starting organizations but much less success in running them.
Dewey’s accomplishments during his student days
At Amherst, he took a job in the library to earn some money. At that time, the library shelved books in the order received. It maintained a catalog in book form, but it followed no particular cataloging rules.
The arrangement offended Dewey’s sense of order. So he visited lots of libraries, spoke with lots of librarians, and studied lots of different systems—both those in use and those proposed.
Rather suddenly (in his telling), the idea of using decimal numbers entered his mind as the obvious solution. He could organize library collections by subject and expand his system as needed.
After spending several months working out the details of the system, he persuaded Amherst to let him reorganize its library. That task accomplished to his satisfaction, he published his system and began a quest to get every library adopt it.
The Dewey Decimal Classification is the first systematic method of organizing books by subject. Several others have joined it, but Dewey, now in its 23rd edition, still dominates American public libraries.
Classification systems establish a hierarchy, dividing knowledge into a few broad subjects and then subdividing them. Large libraries can classify their collection with great granularity. Smaller libraries can use the same systems but classify more broadly.
One day, the Amherst library building caught fire. Dewey carried out as many books as possible, making repeated trips into the burning building. He suffered smoke inhalation and developed a persistent cough.
A doctor predicted he probably had only two years to live. In fact, Dewey lived to be 80, but the apparent death sentence prompted him to use time as effectively as possible. Having begun to reform libraries, he poured his energy into other ways to reform efficiency, including advocating bicycles, shorthand, and spelling reform.
Dewey as a library pioneer
Dewey organized a librarians’ convention at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. The American Library Association was born at that meeting. Dewey was then 25.
He became head librarian at Columbia College in 1883. As a library director, he wrote notes to his staff in five different colors, one for each department. He filed his notes in pigeonholes that he expected staff members to find, read, and obey daily.
He also recognized that he could not persuade other libraries to adopt his decimal system unless he systematically taught is. So he persuaded the college to let him open a library school.
Word spread that Dewey intended to admit women to his school. He had neglected to clear his plan with the school administration. The college at the time only admitted men except for a special woman’s college. The trustees refused to let him use any of the college classrooms, so he found an unused room and began to teach.
Not many professions were open to women at the time, but librarianship soon became one of them. When Dewey left Columbia to head the New York State Library in 1888, Columbia intended to close the school. Dewey managed to have it transferred to Albany and renamed it the New York State Library School.
Ever one to use time efficiently, Dewey showed up for classes at the last minute. With no preliminaries, he began pacing in the front of the room, talking 180 words per minute. (Some students apparently found it easier to count words than to take notes.) Some students found his performance so offensive that they left the school. Most caught his vision and saw themselves as the vanguard of modern librarianship.
As head of the New York State Library from 1888 to 1905, Dewey pioneered interlibrary loan, traveling libraries, and libraries especially for children and the blind.
English spelling is so ridiculous that people have attempted to reform it for about 900 years now. Nothing much comes of the reforms. Quite naturally, someone with Dewey’s obsession with efficiency and saving time would want to make his own attempt. “Relativ” on the DDC title page above is not a misprint.
A speech Dewey wrote for the 1924 meeting of the New York State Historical Association reads, “It is a great plezur to welcum this association which has done and is doing so much to preserv and make more widely known the history of the greatest state of the greatest nation. Yu hav askt me to tel yu briefly the meaning of this unique club.”
Since he delivered the speech orally, no one knew about the odd spelling. But note some real oddities for such a dedicated reformer. He didn’t change such words as association, done, known, greatest, briefly, or unique!
When he changed the spelling of his name from Melville to Melvil, he briefly changed his surname to Dui, although soon enough abandoned it.
Dewey developed a reputation as a womanizer. Persistent rumors insist that Dewey wanted to admit women to his library school in order to have lots of attractive women near him.
Although 90% of his students at Columbia were women, no archival evidence suggests that he acted inappropriately to any of them, but he did require photos sent with admissions applications.
When he transferred his school to the New York State Library, though, complaints began. Eyewitnesses noted flirtatious behavior with two former students who served as his personal assistants. The head of the New York Public Library’s Public Documents Division visited Dewey in 1905 and complained to acquaintances about his behavior.
None of those women filed a formal complaint, but when Dewey attended a 10-day ALA event in Alaska in 1905, he made unwelcome advances to four well-known and respected librarians, and they notified Association officials. As a result, Dewey was forced to retire from organized librarianship.
In 1915, Mary Wright Plummer, a member of Dewey’s first class at Columbia, became ALA president and vowed to refuse to meet with Dewey.
After his ouster, Dewey never changed his ways or even acknowledged that women had a right to object. He served as head of the Lake Placid Club and, in 1930, a former secretary sued him for sexual harassment. He had to pay a substantial fine to settle.
Cancel culture has reached out to discard Dewey. The American Library Association decided in 2019 to remove Dewey’s name from its most prestigious medal, formerly known as the Melvil Dewey Medal.
According to cancel culture mandates, a person’s accomplishments count for less than bad behavior as measured by modern standards. Besides his history of sexual harassment, it counts against him that he shared the racist and anti-Semitic attitudes of most of his generation of leaders.
The Association also decided to cancel Laura Ingalls Wilder and remove her name from its children’s literature award. Why? Because her writings “reflected dated cultural attitudes toward indigenous people and people of color.” (Emphasis added.)
Dewey’s behavior, driven by a psychiatric disorder, is certainly deplorable. So is the bigotry against the dead and hatred championed by today’s cancel culture.
Melvil Dewey, compulsive innovator / Joshua Kendall, American Libraries. March 24, 2014
Melvil Dewey, the father of modern librarianship, was one strange guy. But his classification system is still used in most of the world / Sarah Prescott, School Library Journal. August 1, 2001
Melvil Dewey’s attempt at a spelling revolution / Matthew Wills, JSTOR Daily. November 15, 2016
Melvil Dewey’s name stripped from top library award / Brigit Katz, Smithsonian Magazine. June 28, 2019