Melvil Dewey

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See also Charles A. Cutter | John Cotton Dana | Important librarians in history | History of librarianship degree programs | Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan

Melville Louis Kossuth (Melvil) Dewey (1851 — 1931), American librarian, educator and celebrity, is known the world over for devising the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) (in its 23rd edition). Dewey was born in Adams Center, New York, and attended rural schools. He attended Amherst in Amherst Massachusetts and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree (1874) and a master of arts degree (1877). On graduating, he was hired to reclassify the university library's monographic collections and for two years worked to devise a scheme that superimposed a system of decimals on structures of knowledge that borrowed from Francis Bacon and William Torrey Harris. His decimal-based cataloguing system is still used around the world to classify books, and has made him one of the best known librarians of this or any time.

Dewey pioneered all kinds of changes in librarianship and helped it to develop from a vocation to a profession. Among his many accomplishments were his promotion of women in librarianship and founding of the American Library Association (ALA). In 1876, Dewey copyrighted the DDC and moved to Boston where he founded and edited The Library Journal until 1981. From 1883 to 1888 he was the chief librarian at Columbia University Library, and from 1888 to 1906 was the director of the New York State Library. From 1888 to 1900, he was secretary and executive officer of the University of the State of New York. In 1895, Dewey founded the Lake Placid Club in Lake Placid, New York. He and his son Godfrey were active in arranging the Winter Olympics as he was chairman of the New York State Winter Olympics Committee. In 1926, he moved to Florida and established a southern branch of the Lake Placid Club (where some of his unorthodox and very racist views created problems for him). He died in Lake Placid, Florida in 1931.

Dewey is a member of the American Library Association's Hall of Fame.

Librarian educator

Dewey is widely-regarded as one of the most important figures in library education. He is often referred to as The Father of Modern Librarianship for his contributions to educating librarians. In 1887, he inaugurated the School of Library Economy at Columbia which in 1889 moved to Albany where it was known as New York State Library School. Dewey was appointed deputy director there and faculty debates about the field's future were commonplace. The initial class numbered ten students and doubled in 1889 with a "feminine presence [that] represented a remarkable innovation [in a male-dominated field]". Two years later, graduates were given diplomas in library economy and could continue in the discipline if they wished. In his first Circular of Information published in 1884, he outlined the library's responsibilities for "reference services" and listed members of the "reference department" in his report. Dewey called reference services the "most important single department" in a library. Although many remember Dewey because of the DDC, he was a major figure in promoting the public library movement and the notion of individual reader assistance in university libraries.

'A dynamic figure'

Dewey had a number of obsessions apart from his desire to organize information; one was spelling. His chief complaint of English was its poor phonemic orthography (words are not written how they are spoken). He founded the Spelling Reform Association (spelling his name "Melvil Dui") and the American Metric Bureau. His idea was to simplify English language spelling to the extent that new principles could be applied to the second edition of the Dewey Decimal Classification; the idea of a new metric system would also have an impact on standardized cards produced by the Library Bureau. In terms of his published work, apart from the Dewey Decimal Classification scheme, Dewey was known as a tireless worker and wrote a number of books and regular editorials in the Library Journal. He was described by colleagues as "upright, tenacious, loyal with modern managing gifts" and "busily but quietly working". His "dynamic character" was also noted and he was widely seen as a tireless entertainer who made an indelible impact on the library profession.

Major accomplishments

  • 1876 – Published Dewey Decimal classification system
  • 1876 – Classification and subject index for cataloguing and arranging the books and pamphlets of a library
  • 1876 – Organized the first conference for librarians in Philadelphia which gave birth to the ALA
  • 1876 – Original founder of American Library Journal and served as managing editor until 1881
  • 1885 – Founded New York Library Club
  • 1886 – Founded Spelling Reform Association
  • 1886 – Delivered address in Boston entitled, "Librarianship as a profession for college-bred women" on March 13, 1886
  • 1890 – Elected President of ALA
  • 1892 – Re-elected ALA President
  • 1897 – Official delegate of the U.S. Government to the International Library Conference in London
  • 1904 – Publishes the first Catalog of the ALA Library, later widely used by public libraries for book selection
  • 1922 – Dewey bequeathed his assets to the Lake Placid Club Education Foundation he had set up to carry on reform causes such as metric conversion and simplified spelling


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