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Melvil Dewey

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Melvil Dewey
President of the American Library Association
In office
May 1892 – 1893
Preceded byWilliam Isaac Fletcher
Succeeded byJosephus Nelson Larned
In office
1890 – July 1891
Preceded byFrederick Morgan Crunden
Succeeded bySamuel Swett Green
Personal details
Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey

December 10, 1851 (1851-12-10)
Adams Center, New York, U.S.
DiedDecember 26, 1931(1931-12-26) (aged 80)
Lake Placid, Florida, U.S.
  • Annie R. Godfrey
    (m. 1878)
  • Emily McKay Beal
    (m. 1924)
ChildrenGodfrey Dewey
Alma materAmherst College (AB, MA)
Known forDewey Decimal Classification

Melville Louis Kossuth "Melvil" Dewey (December 10, 1851 – December 26, 1931) was an influential American librarian and educator, inventor of the Dewey Decimal system of library classification, a founder of the Lake Placid Club, and a chief librarian at Columbia University. He was also a founding member of the American Library Association. Although Dewey's contributions to the modern library are widely recognized, his legacy is marred by allegations of sexual harassment, racism, and antisemitism.

Education and personal life[edit]

Dewey was born on December 10, 1851, in Adams Center, New York, the fifth and last child of Joel and Eliza Greene Dewey. He attended rural schools and determined early on that his destiny was to reform the education of the masses.[1] He briefly attended Alfred University (1870),[2] then Amherst College, where he belonged to Delta Kappa Epsilon, and from which he earned a bachelor's degree in 1874 and a master's degree in 1877.[3]

While still a student, he founded the Library Bureau, which sold high-quality index-cards and filing-cabinets, and established the standard dimensions for catalog cards.[4]

As a young adult, he advocated spelling reform; he changed his name from the usual "Melville" to "Melvil", without redundant letters, and for a time changed his surname to "Dui."[5]

From 1883 to 1888 he was chief librarian at the Columbia University Libraries. During his time as director of the New York State Library (1888–1906), Dewey established a program of traveling libraries. From 1888 to 1900, he served as secretary and executive officer of the University of the State of New York.[6]

In 1895, Dewey founded the Lake Placid Club with his wife Annie. He and his son Godfrey had been active in arranging the Winter Olympics, which took place at Lake Placid—he chaired the New York State Winter Olympics Committee. In 1926, he went to Florida to establish a new branch of the Lake Placid Club.[7]

Dewey married twice, first to Annie R. Godfrey and then to Emily McKay Beal.[7] He and his first wife had one child, Godfrey. Dewey became a member of the American Library Association's Hall of Fame in 1951.[citation needed]

He died of a stroke in Lake Placid, Florida.[7]


Dewey pioneered American librarianship[8] and was an influential figure in the development of libraries in America in the late 19th and early 20th century.[9] He is best known for the decimal classification system that many public and school libraries use. Among his other innovations was the idea of a state library operating as the state's school and public library services controller.[10] In Boston, Massachusetts, he founded the Library Bureau, a private company "for the definite purpose of furnishing libraries with equipment and supplies of unvarying correctness and reliability."[11] Its investigative unit, devoted to studying the best practices of library loss-management, circulation and data retention, recovered 3,000 books in its first year of existence.[12]

Dewey's Library Bureau company is also said to have introduced hanging vertical files, first seen at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago.[13] In 1905, Dewey established the American Library Institute, which was an organization conceived to provide for the investigation, study, and discussion of issues within the field of library theory and practice.[14]

Dewey Decimal Classification[edit]

Spine labels of The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, showing Dewey Decimal Classification call numbers (030=Encyclopedias)

Immediately after receiving his undergraduate degree, he was hired to manage Amherst's library and reclassify its collections. Dewey worked out a new scheme that superimposed a system of decimal numbers on a structure of knowledge first outlined by Sir Francis Bacon.[15] For his decision to use a decimal system, he may have been inspired by two library systems that he includes in the acknowledgments in the first publication of his system in 1876.[16] In that preface, and the following thirteen editions, Dewey cites the card system of Italian publisher Natale Battezzati as "the most fruitful source of ideas".[17]

Dewey copyrighted the system in 1876. This system has proved to be enormously influential; though many American libraries have since adopted the classification scheme of the Library of Congress, Dewey's system remains in widespread use.[18][19]

American Library Association[edit]

In 1876, Dewey moved to Boston, where he founded and became editor of The Library Journal, which became an influential factor in the development of libraries in America and the reform of their administration. He was also one of the founders of the American Library Association. The proceedings of the 1876 organizing conference were published by Frederick Leypoldt in the first volume of Library Journal. [20] Dewey was secretary from 1876 to 1891 and president in 1891 and 1893.[9]

School of Library Economy[edit]

The interior of the New York State Library, late 19th century

In 1883, Dewey replaced Beverly R. Betts as librarian of Columbia College and, in the following year, founded the School of Library Economy, the first institution for the instruction of librarians ever organized. The college's board of trustees approved the proposal to establish the school on May 5, 1884.[21] After preparation, the school was officially opened on January 5, 1887, with an enrollment of 20 students—three men and 17 women. Women were admitted to the program at Dewey's insistence and against the wishes of the college's Regents.[22] Although the school had a promising start, Dewey's conflicts with the university officials, in particular over the issue of the presence of women, led to its future being cast in doubt, and by 1888, it was apparent that Columbia intended to close it.[23]

However, at that point, Dewey, upon accepting a position with the New York State Library in Albany, successfully secured the agreement of its Regents to have the school transferred there. The formal transfer was accomplished in 1889,[24] and the school, which was ultimately very successful, was re-established in Albany as the New York State Library School under Dewey's direction.[9] The school returned to Columbia's Manhattan campus in 1926.[25] Dewey did not forget his Columbia students. He petitioned the University of the State of New York, which granted degrees to those students who agreed to submit to examinations and produce a bibliography and thesis. Two students participated, including future ALA registrar and college archivist Nina Browne.[26]

From 1888 to 1906, Dewey was also director of the New York State Library, and until 1900, he was secretary of the University of the State of New York as well. In that function, he completely reorganized the state library, making it one of the most efficient in America, and established the system of state traveling libraries and picture collections. In 1885, he founded the New York Library Club there.[11]

Traveling libraries[edit]

Community libraries began to flourish in the early nineteenth century. The western United States opened to expansion and further exploration, and people wanted services and opportunities to move with them. In New York, Melvil Dewey had "initiated a program of traveling libraries-collections of one hundred books sent to communities without public libraries."[27] His efforts spurred other state organizations and private individuals to create traveling libraries. Increased library services to small or rural communities and underserved populations fortified the efforts of many to seek out education and self-improvement.[citation needed] Dewey was also influenced by Herbert Baxter Adams on ideas about library extension.[28]

Metric system advocacy[edit]

As an enthusiastic supporter of the decimal metric system of weights and measures, Dewey established in 1876 the American Metric Bureau.[29] Dewey also served once again as its secretary.[30] He edited the Bureau's official publication, the Metric Bulletin (later called Metric Advocate), first issued in July 1876. Later in his life, he was a member of the advisory board of the All-America Standards Council (a California-based organization that promoted metrication for all countries in the Americas), and he functioned as a member of the advisory board and chairman of the Metric Education Committee in the American Metric Association (today the U.S. Metric Association).[31]

Lake Placid Club and other reforms[edit]

Lake Placid from the Whiteface Mountain gondola

Late in his life, Dewey helped found the Lake Placid Club as a health resort in New York state.[32]

His theories of spelling reform (to which end he founded the Spelling Reform Association in 1886 and later the Simplified Spelling Board)[11] found some local success at Lake Placid. There was an "Adirondak Loj" in the area, and the dinner menus of the club used his reformed spelling. A September 1927 menu is headed "Simpler spelin" and features dishes like hadok, poted beef with noodls, parsli or masht potato, butr, steamd rys, letis, and ys cream. It also advises guests that "All shud see the butiful after-glo on mountains to the east just before sunset. Fyn vu from Golfhous porch."[33]

Lake Placid also acted as a conference center hosting meetings promoting reform movements, such as the September 1899 conference on "home science" chaired by Ellen Swallow Richards, a pioneer of what later came to be called "home economics".[34]

Dewey was an early promoter of winter sports in Lake Placid and was active in arranging the 1932 Winter Olympics there. He was also a founder of the Lake Placid Club Education Foundation in 1922. Under his leadership, the Northwood School (Lake Placid, New York) prospered. He was also a founder of the Adirondack Music Festival in 1925, and served as a trustee of the Chautauqua Institution.[35]

In 1926, he established a southern branch of the Lake Placid Club in Florida. Dewey supported the idea of Lake Stearns in Florida formally changing its name to Lake Placid, Florida.[36]


Dewey established a pattern of making powerful enemies early in life. Many of his friends found him difficult as well.[37] As one biographer put it, "Although he did not lack friends, they were becoming a little weary of coming to his defense, so endless a process had it become."[38]

Sexual harassment[edit]

Another biography refers to Dewey's "old nemesis—a persistent inability to control himself around women" as a chronic cause of trouble on the job.[39] For decades, Dewey refused to stop his "unwelcome hugging, unwelcome touching, certainly unwelcome kissing" with female subordinates and others, according to biographer Wayne A. Wiegand.[40] When Dewey opened his School of Library Economy at Columbia College to women, it was rumored that he asked for their bust sizes with their applications. Though the rumor turned out to be false, he did require a photograph from each female applicant since "you cannot polish a pumpkin".[41]

In 1905, during a 10-day trip to Alaska sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA), a group he co-founded, he made unwelcome advances toward four prominent librarians (including Adelaide Hasse) who informed Association officials. As a result, Dewey was forced to step down from active participation in the ALA as several of his colleagues added their voices to a campaign.[42] After 1906, Dewey was no longer an active ALA member, but he was still invited to be the guest of honor at ALA's 50th anniversary meeting in 1926.[43] Reports, allegations, and an investigation of Dewey's inappropriate and offensive behavior directed at women continued for decades after his departure from ALA.[44][45][41] His prominent opponents on the grounds of sexual misbehaviour included Tessa Kelso.

"In exchange for a quiet departure, he was spared an ugly and public expose of one of his major flaws", Wiegand writes. "He was never again a power player in ALA politics."[45]

In 1929, Dewey settled out of court for $2,147 for a lawsuit brought by a former stenographer, whom he had kissed and caressed in public the previous summer.[43]

In general, Dewey himself did not deny his actions—only their impropriety. "I have been very unconventional ... as men [are] always who frankly show and speak of their liking for women," he wrote. But, he insisted, it was not his fault if the targets of his "unconventional" actions took offense: "Pure women would understand my ways."[42]

Antisemitism and racism[edit]

The Lake Placid Club banned Jews, blacks, and others from membership, a policy written by Dewey.[46] Out of fear, Dewey bought the land adjacent to the Lake Placid Club to prevent Jews from purchasing it.[42] In 1904, the New York State Board of Regents received a petition demanding Dewey's removal as state librarian because of his involvement in the Lake Placid Club's policy of excluding Jews and other religious and ethnic groups. While the regents declined to remove Dewey, they did issue a public rebuke, and in the summer of 1905 he resigned as a result.[47][48]

American Library Association medal[edit]

At the June 2019 conference of the American Library Association, the Council voted to remove Dewey's name from its top honor, the Melvil Dewey Medal; the resolution cited Dewey's history of racism, antisemitism, and sexual harassment.[49] The resolution was passed overwhelmingly with no debate. The award was renamed the ALA Medal of Excellence at the Association's January 2020 conference.[50]

Selected publications[edit]

See also[edit]


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Dewey, Melvil". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 8 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 139.
  1. ^ Wedgeworth, Robert (1993). World Encyclopedia of Library and Information Services (3rd ed.). Chicago: America Library Association. p. 250. ISBN 0838906095.
  2. ^ Anna Elliott (May 1981). "Melvil Dewey: A Singular and Contentious Life" (PDF). Wilson Library Bulletin. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 10, 2008.
  3. ^ Wiegand, Wayne A. (1996). Irrepressible reformer : a biography of Melvil Dewey. Chicago: American Library Association. p. 14. ISBN 9780838906804.
  4. ^ Michael Dewe (1968), "Historical aspects of library supply". In: Library World Vols 70–72, Grafton (eds), pp. 27–28.
  5. ^ "Dewey Resources". oclc.org. 13 July 2020.
  6. ^ Wiegand, Wayne A. (1996). Irrepressible reformer : a biography of Melvil Dewey. American Library Association. p. 136. ISBN 9780838906804.
  7. ^ a b c "Dr. Melvil Dewey dead in Florida". The New York Times. December 27, 1931. Archived from the original on October 15, 2009. Retrieved April 3, 2022.
  8. ^ Weigand, Wayne A., and Donald G. Davis (1994). Encyclopedia of Library History. Taylor & Francis, p. 388. ISBN 0-8240-5787-2
  9. ^ a b c "DEWEY, MELVIL (1851–)", in: Encyclopædia Britannica (Eleventh ed.), Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911), Cambridge University Press.
  10. ^ Scheppke, Jim. "Origins of the Oregon State Library". Oregon.gov. Archived from the original on April 10, 2009. Retrieved April 3, 2022.
  11. ^ a b c "Library Bureau – Our Legacy". Archived from the original on July 13, 2011. Retrieved July 4, 2011.
  12. ^ Lee, Michael M. Melvil Dewey (1851–1931): His Educational Contributions and Reforms. 1979. Print.
  13. ^ Erik Larson (2003). Devil in the White City.
  14. ^ "American Library Institute". ALA Archives. Retrieved 25 March 2022.
  15. ^ Wiegand, W. A. (1998). "The "Amherst Method" : The Origins of the Dewey Decimal Classification Scheme". In: Libraries & Culture. Vol. 33, No. 2, Spring 1998.
  16. ^ Comaromi, John Philip. The eighteen editions of the Dewey Decimal Classification. Albany, Forest Press Division, 1976. p. 10.
  17. ^ Classification and Subject Index for Cataloguing and Arranging the Books and Pamphlets of a Library, Amherst, Mass., 1876. p. 10.
  18. ^ "About Melvil Dewey, 1851-1931 (The Dewey Program at the Library of Congress)". Library of Congress.
  19. ^ "Dewey Services: Improve the organization of your materials". 3 June 2021.
  20. ^ Library Journal 1 1876-1877.
  21. ^ Sarah K. Vann. Training for Librarianship Before 1923. Chicago: American Library Association, 1961. p. 28.
  22. ^ Vann, p. 39.
  23. ^ Richard E. Rubin, Foundations of Library and Information Science. 3rd edn. New York: Neal-Schuman, c2010, p. 81.
  24. ^ Vann, pp. 50–52.
  25. ^ Saxon, Wolfgang, "Columbia to Close Library", The New York Times, June 6, 1990.
  26. ^ Biographical Note, Nina Elizabeth Browne Papers, 1860 – 1954, Smith College Archives, (accessed August 5, 2016).
  27. ^ Murray, S. A. (2012). The Library: An Illustrated History. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.
  28. ^ Cunningham, Raymond. “Historian among the Librarians: Herbert Baxter Adams and Modern Librarianship.” The Journal of Library History. 21, no. 4 (1986): 704–22.
  29. ^ The Library History Buff. "Melvil Dewey's Library Bureau".
  30. ^ Children of the Code. " Background Research Notes: CODE REFORM (ATTEMPTS) HISTORY".
  31. ^ Hector Vera, "Melvil Dewey, Metric Apostle", MetricToday: The U.S. Metric Association Newsletter, vol. 45, no. 4, July–August 2010, pp. 1, 4–6.
  32. ^ "Our History". Lake Placid Club Lodges. 12 December 2018. Retrieved 25 March 2022.
  33. ^ Latham, Martin (2020). The bookseller's tale. [United Kingdom]. ISBN 978-0-241-40881-0. OCLC 1137853933.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  34. ^ Richards, Ellen H., ed. (1901–1908), Lake Placid Conference proceedings, Lake Placid, NY: American Home Economics Association.
  35. ^ Min-song Lee, Michael (1979). Melvil Dewey (1851-1931): His Educational Contributions and Reforms. Loyola University (dissertation). p. 154.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  36. ^ "Melvil Dewey and the Two Lake Placids". Lake Placid. 22 April 2019.
  37. ^ Wiegand, passim
  38. ^ Rider, Fremont (1944), Melvil Dewey. American Library Association, p. 105.
  39. ^ Wiegand, pp. 353–5ff.
  40. ^ Ford, Anne (June 2018). "Bringing Harassment Out of the History Books". American Libraries. American Library Association. Retrieved June 27, 2018.
  41. ^ a b Kendall, Joshua. "Melvil Dewey: Compulsive Innovator". American Libraries Magazine, 2014.
  42. ^ a b c "Bringing Harassment Out of the History Books". American Libraries Magazine. 2018-06-01. Retrieved 2020-03-01.
  43. ^ a b "Bringing Harassment Out of the History Books". American Libraries Magazine. 2018-06-01. Retrieved 2020-11-27.
  44. ^ Garrison, Dee (2003). Apostles of culture : the public librarian and American society, 1876–1920. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. p. 280. ISBN 9780299181147. OCLC 50285121.
  45. ^ a b "The Father of Modern Libraries Was a Serial Sexual Harasser". HISTORY.com. Retrieved January 8, 2018.
  46. ^ Citizen (1905-02-15). "STATE LIBRARIAN DEWEY.; The Real Issue Involved in the Demand for His Removal". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-02-14.
  47. ^ Silver, M. M., Louis Marshall and the Rise of Jewish Ethnicity in America. Syracuse University Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-8156-1000-7, pp. 90–97.
  48. ^ "STATE LIBRARIAN DEWEY IS REBUKED BY REGENTS; Must Quit Countenancing Anti-Jewish Campaign or Resign. ACT IN LAKE PLACID CASE Dewey Repeats Promise to Give Up Trusteeship of Club Which Issued Circulars Offensive to Jews". The New York Times. 1905-02-16. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-02-14.
  49. ^ Albanese, Andrew (2019-06-24). "ALA Votes to Strip Melvil Dewey's Name From Its Top Honor". Publishers Weekly. Retrieved 2020-02-27.
  50. ^ "2020 Midwinter Wrap-Up". American Libraries Magazine. 2020-02-06. Retrieved 2020-02-27.

Further reading[edit]

  • American Library Association (1993). World encyclopedia of library and information services (3rd ed.). Robert Wedgeworth. pp. 250–253 of 905. ISBN 0838906095.
  • Dawe, George Grosvenor(1932). Melvil Dewey, Seer: Inspirer: Doer, 1851–1931. Lake Placid Club, N.Y.: Melvil Dewey Biography.
  • Foster, William E. (1926). Five men of '76. Chicago: American Library Association. (Justin Winsor, W.F. Poole, C.A. Cutter, Melvil Dewey and R.R. Bowker).
  • Wiegand, Wayne A. (1996). Irrepressible Reformer: A Biography of Melvil Dewey. Chicago: American Library Association.

External links[edit]

Non-profit organization positions
Preceded by President of the American Library Association
Succeeded by
Preceded by President of the American Library Association
Succeeded by