Melvil Dewey (December 10, 1851-December 26, 1931), US library pioneer

Born Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey, he would later shorten his name to Melvil Dui as part of one of his passionate crusades, simplifying the spelling in the English language. He helped found the Spelling Reform Association in 1876 and penned this complaint in “simplified” English:

“Speling Skolars agree that we have the most unsyentifik, unskolarli, illojikal & wasteful speling ani languaj ever ataind.”

He was also a proponent of the metric system, becoming secretary of the American Metric Bureau the same year. Neither the “Dui” or these two crusades stuck (thankfully, as far as spelling reform goes), but the spelling of his first name did, as did the work he is actually remembered for, librarianship.

Melvil Dewey was born into a poor family from upstate New York. He paid his way through Amherst College by working in their library, and upon graduation they hired him on as a librarian in 1874. While at Amherst, he devised the Dewey Decimal System and Amherst allowed him to apply it to their collection. Before Dewey, books were classified by a fixed shelf location, which was unwieldy and inflexible. Dewey’s system assigned a call number to each book according to subject matter, making the whole process of finding and moving books much easier, and allowing different libraries to use identical classification systems. Now in its 21st edition, it is still the world’s most widely used classification system, though it is the object of much valid criticism, and not just because Dewey used his “simplified” spelling up until the 14th edition (and in the introductions until the 18th). It is, even after a century of revisions, rather ethnocentric and is unwieldy for large collections such as those found in academic libraries (which prefer to use the Library of Congress Classification System), but it is probably ideal for small public libraries.

In 1876, Dewey left Amherst for Boston and founded the Library Bureau (www.librarybureau.com), a library supply company which provided such basic staples as shelving and still exists today. The company’s card catalogues initially caused some problems, as the pro-metric Dewey produced drawers that fit 12.5 cm x 7.5 cm cards and when everybody else tried to stick standard 3 in. x 5 in. cards in there, they discovered they did not fit.

In the same year, he helped found the American Library Association and became their first member. He served as secretary from 1876-1890 and was elected president in 1890 and 1892. He became managing editor of their publication, Library Journal. He also helped found local and international library organizations. The importance of this cannot be overstated, as it was a key step in turning librarianship into a profession.

Dewey was also a pioneer in the area of library education. In 1883 he was appointed librarian of Columbia College (later Columbia University) and became the director of their School of Library Economy in 1887, which was the world’s first library school. At Columbia, though, Dewey ran into resistance, and the problems were not all differences of academic philosophy (though many were). Many professors were simply annoyed at his tedious and lengthy memos. Many others objected to the high number of women that Dewey personally enrolled in the school, though Columbia as a whole then prohibited women from enrolling. Many now see Dewey as a pioneer in female workplace and educational equality, but his motives seem rather suspicious in light of later allegations of what we would now call sexual harassment. Regardless, Columbia’s Board of Trustees suspended Dewey, and he resigned in 1889 and took the library school with him to Albany, NY, where it became the New York State Library School (today it’s the School of Information Science and Policy at the University at Albany). In Albany, he also served as director of the New York State Library.

In 1894, Dewey and his wife started the Lake Placid Club, an exclusive resort in the Adirondack Mountains which resembled many 19th century utopian communities. Dewey refused to admit Jews into his resort, and when complaints reached the state Board of Regents, he resigned his post as state librarian before they could fire him.

Dewey retired to Florida and died in 1931.

Sources include: http://istweb.syr.edu/~isdp561/Dewey/activities.html, http://www.oclc.org/dewey/about/biography.htm, http://www.booktalking.net/books/dewey/

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