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Dewey, Melvil (1851-1931)

DEWEY, MELVIL (1851-1931)

An educational reformer and librarian, Melvil Dewey was born in Adams Centre, New York, on December 10, 1851 (a "decimal" date, he later boasted to friends), the fifth and last child of Joel and Eliza Greene Dewey. He attended rural local schools and early in life determined that his "des-tiny" was to become a "reformer" in educating the masses. In September 1870, he enrolled in Amherst College in Massachusetts.

In 1872, Dewey began working in the college library. There he discovered a site for his reforming interests, which by that time had also extended to simplified spelling, use of shorthand, and metric conversion. After he graduated in 1874, Amherst College hired Dewey to manage the library and reclassify the collections. For two years Dewey worked out a new scheme that superimposed a system of decimals on a structure of knowledge first outlined by Sir Francis Bacon and later modified by William Torrey Harris. In 1876, Dewey copyrighted the "decimal classification," moved to Boston, and in the summer of 1876 helped found the Spelling Reform Association, the Metric Bureau, and the American Library Association (ALA). He also became managing editor of a new periodical— Library Journal —which was introduced in October 1876 at the first ALA conference. For each organization, Dewey also authored a constitution and served as the first secretary, a post from which he exercised close control.

Lacking sufficient capital to push for reforms, however, Dewey soon merged the treasuries of all of these organizations into a single account and (without informing any of them) used that account as collateral against which to borrow money to fund initiatives that he was pushing in each. He continued this practice as president of the private Readers and Writers Economy Company (RWEC) that he started in 1879. In 1880, when other RWEC investors discovered what he was doing, they obtained a court injunction that denied him access to these funds. Because the injunction prevented him from accessing the accounts of reform organizations he had founded, he had to tell them about his unorthodox business practices. An out-of-court settlement enabled him to restore access to organizational treasuries, but by that time "Dui" (in 1879 he had changed the spelling of his last name to a more simplified, phonetically accurate form) had lost substantial credibility with all of the organizations. In March 1881, he established the Library Bureau and, as president, resumed efforts to increase the efficiency of library services and to advance spelling and metric reform.

In May 1883, "Dewey" became librarian-in-chief at Columbia College, an all-male institution, and, at the urging of his new employers, reverted to the original spelling of his name. Quickly implementing changes that he had been marketing through the Library Bureau, Dewey consolidated, by 1887, more than fifty thousand poorly cataloged and lightly used volumes housed in nine separate campus locations into a central facility classified by the decimal system. In January of that year, Dewey opened the world's first library school, and against the opposition of many faculty members and most of the university board members, he included seventeen women in the first class of twenty students. The friction he caused by this and other acts eventually led Dewey to accept an offer in December 1888 from the Regents of the University of the State of New York (USNY) to become their secretary and the New York State librarian. All parties also agreed to let Dewey move the library school with him to Albany.

As secretary, Dewey crafted his office into a powerful force to lobby the legislature for higher education, to increase funding for New York libraries, and to eliminate bogus diploma mills. He also began to use the growing number of public libraries in New York as sites where USNY instructors would teach courses that would enable local residents to obtain a USNY degree. To help with this endeavor, he organized the New York Library Association in 1890, set up extension sites in public libraries, and created departments within the State Library that provided traveling and interlibrary loan services and issued bibliographies of "best books" recommended for purchase by local libraries. In 1892, Dewey convinced the legislature to provide matching grants to the public libraries of New York if their collections passed inspection by a State Library employee. Because he irritated a number of politicians in the process of pushing for all these reforms, he also became an obstacle to efforts to merge New York's separately run common school and higher education systems. In part to remove himself from unification politics and in part because he wanted to avoid charges of conflict of interest (for helping a family member whose proprietary school operated in violation of a university charter that Dewey had responsibility for enforcing), he resigned as secretary of the USNY in 1899. However, he remained the state librarian.

While in Albany, Dewey did not neglect his other reform interests. As president of the American Library Association in 1893, he organized an annual conference for the Chicago World's Fair that exhibited a 5,000-title "model library" that his New York Library School students and faculty had put together. He then got the U.S. Bureau of Education to publish the model library as a bibliographic guide that librarians across the country could obtain as a government document. In the 1890s, his Library Bureau also developed a card-index system that reduced record-keeping costs for banks and insurance companies. Most of the money Dewey realized by this venture he rolled back into other reforms, including a private Lake Placid Club that he and his wife Annie started in 1894 as an exclusive rest and recreation facility in the Adirondack Mountains. From the beginning, however, the club admitted no Jews or ethnic or racial minorities. In 1905, several prominent New York City Jews protested, and under the pressure, Dewey resigned as state librarian. About the same time, several library school alumnae and ALA women threatened to bring a vote of censure against Dewey for sexual harassment of females at ALA conferences. In 1906, they forced him out of active ALA participation.

Dewey then channeled his efforts to improve the Lake Placid Club, which in the next twenty years grew from a central clubhouse to a 10,000-acre complex with scores of buildings, five golf courses, and twenty-one tennis courts. The club also cultivated winter sports and by 1930 had become so popular as a site that the International Olympic Committee chose the village of Lake Placid to host the 1932 Winter Olympics. By that time, Dewey had started a second club in Florida with the same exclusionary rules as its northern counterpart. All assets from both clubs were left to the Lake Placid Education Foundation, an organization Dewey and his wife had established to carry on reform efforts in areas such as metric conversion and simplified spelling.

In the twentieth century, the decimal classification system that Dewey copyrighted in 1876 (and which had gone through several editions) became the common organizing system for hundreds of thousands of libraries of all types in the United States and throughout the world. In addition, the jurisdictional boundaries of library science that he had defined in the late nineteenth century became a formal professional structure. This system gave a privileged position to information process over content and focused on developing the library as an information agency where library professionals exercise the expertise and management skills that are necessary to run it efficiently. The American Library Association that he helped to found grew into the largest such association in the world, and the bibliographies of "best books" that he fostered evolved into a system of guides upon which librarians relied to develop their collections. Finally, his activities as secretary for the University of the State of New York significantly improved the quality of higher education in New York and became a model that other state systems emulated. Dewey died in Florida on December 26, 1931.

See also:Cataloging and Knowledge Organization; Libraries, History of; Library Associations and Consortia.


Comaromi, John Phillip. (1976). The Eighteen Editions of the Dewey Decimal Classification. Albany, NY: Forest Press.

Dawe, Grosvenor. (1932). Melvil Dewey, Seer: Inspirer: Doer. Lake Placid, NY: Lake Placid Club.

Garrison, Dee. (1978). Apostles of Culture: The Public Librarian and American Society, 1876-1920. New York: Free Press.

Rider, Fremont. (1944). Melvil Dewey. Chicago: American Library Association.

Stevenson, Gordon, and Kramer-Greene, Judith, eds.(1983). Melvil Dewey: The Man and the Classification. Albany, NY: Forest Press.

Vann, Sarah K., ed. (1978). Melvil Dewey: His Enduring Presence in Librarianship. Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited, Inc.

Wiegand, Wayne A. (1986). The Politics of an Emerging Profession: The American Library Association, 1876-1917. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Wiegand, Wayne A. (1996). Irrepressible Reformer: A Biography of Melvil Dewey. Chicago: American Library Association.

Wayne A. Wiegand

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