Melvil Dewey

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Melvil Dewey

The American librarian and reformer Melvil Dewey (1851-1931) established the Dewey decimal system of classifying books and played a prominent role in developing professional institutions for librarians.

Melvil Dewey was born in Adams Center, N.Y., on Dec. 10, 1851, the youngest of five children of impoverished parents. His father, a boot maker and keeper of a general store, and his sternly religious mother inculcated principles of hard work and economy in the youth, along with a sense of self-righteousness that marked him throughout his life. He early demonstrated strong mathematical ability and a fascination with systems and classifications. His education was slowed by the need to earn money, and he did not enter Amherst College until he was 19, graduating in 1874.

Dewey worked in the college library during his last 2 years as a student and for the 2 years following his graduation. Although then still attracted to a missionary career, he carried out intensive investigations of other libraries and began to develop his own ideas. His work culminated in 1876, when he published A Classification and Subject Index for Cataloguing and Arranging the Books and Pamphlets of a Library. This system, still in use today in most public and some college libraries, was his major contribution to his profession.

Arranging the various fields of knowledge into a logical order and using a decimal system of notation to indicate the arrangement of books, Dewey's system proved easy both for librarians and users to understand, capable of expansion to suit the needs of large as well as small libraries, and applicable to a wide variety of books and ideas. Although he was not the first to come up with the basic idea, his version was both logical and workable. Pushed by Dewey and his students with missionary zeal, it triumphed over its competitors.

In 1876 Dewey left Amherst for Boston, where he founded the Library Bureau and worked for a number of reform movements, including the metric system, temperance, tobacco, and spelling. The spelling of his first name (he was baptized Melville) demonstrates his devotion to the last-mentioned cause. He played a major role in founding the American Library Association in 1876 and served as its secretary (1876-1890) and president (1890-1891, 1892-1893). He edited Library Journal (1876-1880) and all through his life contributed to it.

In 1883 Dewey accepted an offer to become librarian of Columbia College and vigorously proceeded to put his ideas into effect, reclassifying and recataloging the library and starting a library school. The zeal with which he applied his ideas was accompanied by a spirit of intolerance of disagreement and tactlessness toward others that aroused controversy and bitter opposition, climaxing in his suspension by the Columbia trustees in 1888. Although exonerated of the charges brought against him, he resigned later that year.

In 1888 Dewey was chosen director of the New York State Library and moved to Albany the following year, taking his library school with him. Again, he plunged into his work, expanding the scope and usefulness of his institution by enlarging its collections and establishing or improving the home education department, the extension division, and the traveling libraries. He helped found the Association of State Libraries in 1890 and was active in its deliberations. Again, his professional competence was counterbalanced by his inability to manage human relationships. Charges of profiting from financial transactions with his students were dismissed, but after he was rebuked by the board for his role in organizing a club at Lake Placid, N.Y., that discriminated against Jews, he resigned as of Jan. 1, 1906.

After leaving Albany, Dewey concentrated on the affairs of his club and a similar venture he began in Florida in 1927. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage on Dec. 26, 1931, in his Florida home.

Further Reading

George Grosvenor Dawe, Melvil Dewey: Seer, Inspirer, Doer (1932), is an uncritical, family-sponsored biography that has many quotations from Dewey's letters and essays. Fremont Rider, Melvil Dewey (1944), is shorter and more critical though still favorable to its subject. No convenient collection of Dewey's writings, which are mostly periodical contributions, exists.

Additional Sources

Wiegand, Wayne A., Irrepressible reformer: a biography of Melvil Dewey, Chicago: American Library Assoc., 1996. □