By Eilene Lyon — December 10, 2019
On this date 168 years ago, Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey (later shortened to Melvil Dewey) was born in Adams Center, New York, to Joel and Eliza (Greene) Dewey. He is credited with inventing the book-cataloging system that bears his name: the Dewey Decimal System.
There’s a bit more to the story, of course.
While still a student at Amherst College in Massachusetts, Dewey started a business called the Library Bureau which created and sold standardized supplies to libraries. He advocated for a simplified spelling system, which led him to drop redundant letters from his first name. For a brief time he spelled his last name “Dui.”
Dewey essentially invented what we call Library Science. In the early part of the 19th century, books were still shelved by order of acquisition and access limited to select patrons. Dewey pioneered the concept of traveling libraries to bring knowledge to small communities across the country.
Another aspect to his work was loss control. As libraries became more open, a new method of cataloging books for easier retrieval and public access was needed, as well as for making sure books got returned to where they belonged.
A proponent of the metric system, Dewey found a decimal-based scheme appealing. He devised his classification in 1873 and copyrighted it in 1876. He credited the work of Italian publisher Natale Battezzati as one source of inspiration.
Apparently that wasn’t the only source, however. In 1973, a Philadelphia City Hall information worker, John Maass, published an article revealing that the classification system actually originated with a mining engineer by the name of William Phipps Blake.
Blake developed his method in 1873 at the request of the U. S. Centennial Commission to organize the exhibitions at the 1876 exposition in Philadelphia. A pamphlet (or pamflet, as Dewey would have it) describing the system went out to librarians and professionals across the country, and one undoubtedly ended up in Dewey’s hands.
Librarians everywhere shrugged at the news of his plagiarism. Whether or not he invented the classification system, he promoted it and got it widely accepted. And Blake never protested.
Dewey is also credited with feminizing the library profession. When he opened the first library school in 1887 at Columbia College, 17 of the first 20 students were women. The regents had balked, but women were admitted at Dewey’s insistence. The conflict was part of the reason that Columbia allowed Dewey to move the school to the State Library of New York.
But Dewey was no supporter of women’s rights. Far from it. If the #MeToo movement had existed in the late 19th century, Melvil Dewey would be the poster child of bad behavior. Move over Harvey Weinstein!
He was accused many times of inappropriate hugging, kissing and other unwanted physical contact. Female applicants to his school had to submit photographs of themselves, because he said “you cannot polish a pumpkin.”
Dewey and his first wife, Annie Godfrey, helped found the Lake Placid Club health resort in 1895 in Lake Placid, New York. He later created another version in Florida. A fan of winter sports, he participated in bringing the 1932 Winter Olympic Games to Lake Placid, a project he was working on when he died in Lake Placid, Florida, on December 26, 1931.
But his Lake Placid club generated controversy as well. It prohibited membership by Jews, blacks and others. Dewey’s racism led the council of the American Library Association to vote in June 2019 to strip his name from their highest award.
“Did Dewey Plagiarize?” The San Francisco Examiner, January 19, 1973, p. 20 – via newspapers.com.