In The Library

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.

The 1885 issue includes a few examples of Dewey’s spelling simplification system.

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.

From a portrait collection from the 1920s (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

William Phipps Blake, mining engineer. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Photo by Eliabe Costa on Unsplash

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.”

Lake Placid on a winter night (Wikimedia Commons)

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.


Feature image: by Devon Divine on Unsplash


“Did Dewey Plagiarize?” The San Francisco Examiner, January 19, 1973, p. 20 – via

35 thoughts on “In The Library

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    1. I thought it was pretty funny to learn the true story. Seems we all learn about the Dewey Decimal system in school. I almost added a fun photo I have of a card catalog at the University of Idaho. But it was just one too many.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s not as widespread as it once was, but about 200k libraries still use it around the world. Larger ones tend to go with the Library of Congress system. Dewey actually encouraged the person who developed what eventually became the LOC system.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My daughter said the biggest difference between high school and college is that in college she needs libraries for research wherein In hs she was able to find good source material on the Internet. Though I honestly don’t know how she finds the books she needs….she did just recently get her library of Congress library card, so that caused much joy in out household

        Liked by 1 person

      2. My daughter went there for class field trip. She said it was amazing going with her prof who is also dean of her college because hes just so knowledgeable about it

        Liked by 1 person

      3. As a librarian, Dewey is a word which has often been in my lips! I knew he wasn’t a great man overall, so I don’t admire him as a person, but his system works and has been able to adapt over the years (not always very elegantly) to subjects Dewey could never have thought of eg computing science. I would say the vast majority of public and general academic libraries in the UK use Dewey. Smaller, specialised libraries often have more tailored systems.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. And to think maybe he didn’t even invent the decimal system! The guy was really a world-class jerk. But he did accomplish some things and some women got a college education who otherwise may not have. But I don’t believe the ends justify the means.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. I knew of some of Melvil Dewey’s shortcomings but will not judge. We tend today to judge all too quickly people of the past by today’s standards and do not take into considerations the norms of the person’s time in history. I am not saying that I agree with his actions (far from it) but I will not judge him by the standards of today. I hate to think what the world will have to say about us 100 years from now and how they will judge us. Perhaps if someone was to write a good bio of Dewey the good he did would equal or out weigh the negative. On another note I would have put in that photo of the card catalog of the University of Idaho. But since you read my blog you know how I like to use photographs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Perhaps you think I was being harsh, but mostly I was stating the facts as they are known. Of course Dewey did some good things. Racism was rampant in the 1890s, so he was hardly alone in that respect. And women have been treated badly from time immemorial. There are biographies of Dewey available that would tell more, and anyone reading Wikipedia can find those sources if they are interested. Thanks for commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Never thought you were being harsh and if I gave that impression it was not meant. Perhaps some day I will read a bio on Dewey, but truth be told I am way behind on my reading. Don’t get me started on the treatment of women. Having been married now for 48 years I have noticed the different treatment given to me and my wife, and also my daughter. We still have such a long way to go. All we can do it take the next step. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, I didn’t know all that about Dewey. Perhaps I should have after working in a public library for 30 years. I knew the Dewey decimal system well, but not much about the man it is named after. The college libraries use the Library of Congress method. I remember having to learn that when I was in College, but have since forgotten it.

    Liked by 1 person

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