Melvil Dewey

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Melvil Dewey
Melvil Dewey.jpg
Born Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey
December 10, 1851 (1851-12-10)
Adams Center, New York
Died December 26, 1931(1931-12-26) (aged 80)
Lake Placid, Florida
Nationality American
Other names Melvil Dewey
Melvil Dui
Education Amherst College
Occupation librarian, resort developer, reformer
Known for Dewey Decimal Classification
Spouse(s) Annie R. Godfrey (1878)
Emily McKay Beal (1924)
Relatives Godfrey Dewey (son)

Melville Louis Kossuth (Melvil) Dewey (December 10, 1851 – December 26, 1931) was an American librarian and educator, inventor of the Dewey Decimal system of library classification, and a founder of the Lake Placid Club.

Education and personal life

Dewey was born in Adams Center, New York, the fifth and last child of Joel and Eliza Greene Dewey. He attended rural schools and determined early that his destiny was to reform education of the masses.[citation needed] He briefly attended Alfred University (1870),[1] 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 in 1877.

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.[2]

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".[3]

From 1883 to 1888 he was chief librarian at Columbia University. During his time as director of the New York State Library (1888–1906) Dewey established a program of traveling libraries. From 1888 to 1900 Dewey served as secretary and executive officer of the University of the State of New York. 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. He died in Lake Placid, Florida.[4]

Even Dewey's friends found him difficult, and he early in life established a pattern of making powerful enemies.[5] As one biographer put it, "Although he did not lack friends, they were weary of coming to his defense, so endless a process it had become."[6] 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.[7] Indeed, 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." However, there is no archival evidence that he acted in any way inappropriate with his female students. 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 on four prominent librarians who informed Association officials. As a result, Dewey was ostracized from the ALA.[8]

In 1904 the New York State Board of Regents received a petition demanding Dewey's removal as State Librarian because of his personal 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.[9][10]

Dewey married twice, first to Annie R. Godfrey, and then to Emily McKay Beal.[4] He and his first wife had one child, Godfrey. Dewey became a member of the American Library Association's Hall of Fame in 1951.


Dewey was a pioneer in American librarianship[11] and an influential figure in the development of libraries in America in the late 19th and early the 20th century.[12] He is best known for the decimal classification system that many public and school libraries use. But the decimal system was just one of a long list of innovations. Among these is the idea of the state library as controller of school and public library services within a state.[13] 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."[14] Dewey's Library Bureau company is also said to have introduced hanging vertical files, first seen at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago.[15]

Dewey Decimal Classification

Spine labels showing Dewey Decimal Classification call numbers.

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.[16] For his decision to use a decimal system he may have been inspired by two library systems that he includes in the acknowledgements in the first publication of his system in 1876.[17] In that preface, and in the following thirteen editions, Dewey cites the card system of Italian publisher Natale Battezzati as "...the most fruitful source of ideas..."[18]

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.[19][20]

American Library Association

In 1877 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 in the reform of their administration. He was also one of the founders of the American Library Association, of which he was secretary from 1876 to 1891, and president in 1891 and 1893.[12]

School of Library Economy

Interior of the New York State Library, late 19th century.

In 1883 Dewey became librarian of Columbia College, and in the following year founded there the School of Library Economy, the first institution for the instruction of librarians ever organized. The proposal to establish the school was approved by the college's Board of Trustees on 5 May 1884.[21] After a period of preparation, the school was officially opened on 5 January 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.[12] (The school returned to Columbia's Manhattan campus in 1926.[25])

During the period 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, as well as established the system of state travelling libraries and picture collections. In 1885, he founded the New York Library Club there.[14]

Traveling Libraries

Community libraries began to flourish in the early nineteenth century. The West 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."[26] 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.

Metric system advocacy

As an enthusiastic supporter of the decimal metric system of weights and measures, Dewey established in 1876 the American Metric Bureau.[27] Dewey also served once again as its secretary.[28] 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 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 member of the Advisory Board and chairman of the Metric Education Committee in the American Metric Association (today the U.S. Metric Association).[29]

Lake Placid Club and conference

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. His theories of spelling reform (to which end he founded the Spelling Reform Association in 1886)[14] found some local success at Lake Placid: there is an "Adirondac Loj" in the area, and 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 befor sunset. Fyn vu from Golfhous porch."

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.[30]

Dewey was an early promoter of winter sports in Lake Placid and was active in arranging the 1932 Winter Olympics there. He also was 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.

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.

Selected publications

  • 1876 Classification and subject index for cataloguing and arranging the books and pamphlets of a library. Hartford, Conn.: Case, Lockwood, & Brainard Company (44 pages).
  • 1885 Decimal classification and relative index for arranging, cataloguing, and indexing public and private libraries and for pamphlets, clippings, notes, scrap books, index rerums, etc.: Second edition, revised and greatly enlarged. Boston: Library Bureau (314 pages).
  • 1886 Librarianship as a profession for college-bred women. An address delivered before the Association of collegiate alumnæ, on March 13, 1886, by Melvil Dewey. Boston: Library Bureau.
  • 1887 Library notes: improved methods and labor-savers for librarians, readers and writers. Boston: Library Bureau.
  • 1895 Abridged decimal classification and relative index for libraries. Boston: Library Bureau.
  • 1898 Simplified library school rules. Boston, London [etc.]: Library Bureau.
  • 1889 Libraries as related to the educational work of the state. Albany.
  • 1890 Statistics of libraries in the state of New York numbering over 300 volumes. Albany.
  • 1894 Library school rules: 1. Card catalog rules; 2. Accession book rules; 3. Shelf list rules.
  • 1904 A.L.A. catalog Washington: Government Printing Office.

See also


  • Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. Missing or empty |title= (help)CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  1. Anna Elliott (May 1981). "Melvil Dewey: A Singular and Contentious Life" (PDF). Wilson Library Bulletin.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Michael Dewe (1968) "Historical aspects of library supply". In: Library world Vol 70–72 Grafton (eds.) pp. 27–28
  3. "Dewey Resources".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 The New York Times. "Melvil Dewey dead in Florida", December 27, 1931.
  5. Wiegand, passim
  6. Rider, Fremont. (1944) Melvil Dewey. American Library Association. p.105.
  7. Wiegand, pp. 353–5ff.
  8. Kendall, Joshua. "Melvil Dewey: Compulsive Innovator". American Libraries Magazine, 2014,
  9. 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
  10. Wiegand, p. 327
  11. Weigand, Wayne A. and Donald G. Davis (1994). Encyclopedia of Library History. Taylor & Francis, p388. ISBN 0-8240-5787-2
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 "DEWEY, MELVIL (1851–)" in: Encyclopædia Britannica (Eleventh ed.). Chisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). . Cambridge University Press.
  13. Jim Scheppke, State Librarian (2005). Origins of the Oregon State Library. Written on the occasion of the celebration of the State Library Centennial, January 27, 2005 Retrieved 30 June 2008.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 "Library Bureau – Our Legacy". Retrieved 2011-07-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Erik Larson (2003). Devil in the White City.
  16. W.A. Wiegand (1998). "The "Amherst Method" : The Origins of the Dewey Decimal Classification Scheme" In: Libraries & Culture. Vol. 33, No. 2, Spring 1998.
  17. Comaromi, John Philip. The eighteen editions of the Dewey Decimal Classification. Albany, Forest Press Division, 1976. p. 10.
  18. Classification and Subject Index for Cataloguing and Arranging the Books and Pamphlets of a Library, Amherst, Mass., 1876. p. 10
  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 ed. New York: Neal-Schuman, c2010. p. 81.
  24. Vann, p. 50-52.
  25. "The New York Times". Columbia to Close Library, June 6, 1990.
  26. Murray, S. A. (2012). The Library: An Illustrated History. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.
  27. The Library History Buff. " Melvil Dewey's Library Bureau".
  28. Children of the Code. " Background Research Notes: CODE REFORM (ATTEMPTS) HISTORY".
  29. Hector Vera, “Melvil Dewey, Metric Apostle,” MetricToday: The U.S. Metric Association Newsletter, vol. 45, no. 4, July–August 2010, pp. 1, 4-6.
  30. Richards, Ellen H., ed. (1901–1908), "Lake Placid Conference proceedings", Lake Placid Conference, Lake Placid, NY: American Home Economics Association Missing or empty |title= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • George Grosvenor Dawe (1932). Melvil Dewey, Seer: Inspirer: Doer, 1851–1931. Lake Placid Club, N.Y.: Melvil Dewey Biography.
  • Wayne A. Wiegand (1996). Irrepressible Reformer: A Biography of Melvil Dewey. Chicago: American Library Association.

External links