Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 822
This is the grave of Melvil Dewey.
Born in 1851 in Adams Center, New York, Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey was interested in education from a young man. He graduated from Amherst College in 1874. By this time, he was already interested in classifications in libraries. He started the Library Bureau in 1876, which was an equipment and supply firm for libraries. He made a ton of money here by supplying all the equipment for Andrew Carnegie’s blood money libraries he gave to towns across the nation to make him feel less bad for his horrible crimes. He moved to Boston, where the company was located and also founded of The Library Journal. This was probably the first professional library journal in America. Dewey declared it the “official organ of the library associations of America and of the United Kingdom.” It was also a forum for the professionalization of librarians themselves. They were seen as marginal employees in the early libraries. Dewey wanted to make them as important as the building itself, and perhaps he succeeded in that.
Dewey was also obsessed with classification. For one thing, it was in his 20s when he changed the spelling of the name to shorten it. He seems to have found extra letters morally abhorrent and wanted to rationalize the language, starting with his own name. I suspect a lot of people found this pretty annoying, not because they cared how he spelled his own name, but because he would do things such as write “have” as “hav” because the extra “e” was pointless. These obsessions of course led to the Dewey Decimal System, which he copyrighted in 1876. He continued to expand and refine this throughout his life. While most, albeit not all, universities have moved to the Library of Congress system, globally Dewey is still probably the most used library classification system. Until he died, Dewey oversaw the whole operation, including the editing and revisions of his book that laid it out. Of course, he made a lot of money on this. It may not surprise you at this point to learn that Dewey was a huge metric system advocate as well.
In 1883, Dewey moved to New York as the head librarian of Columbia University, where he stayed until 1888. He started the first professional college program for librarians while there, which opened in 1884. The Columbia leaders were angry though that he allowed women to attend the program, which led him to look for another job. He then became the director of the New York State Library from 1888 to 1906, moving his library training school from Columbia to what later became SUNY-Albany. There, he created traveling libraries to go throughout the state to its poor neighborhoods and isolated communities. In 1888, he also became the secretary and executive officer of the SUNY system of higher education in New York.
As a rich guy, Dewey wanted to make his impact in the social world. In 1895, he founded the Lake Placid Club, an exclusive private club of the extremely rich who vacationed in the area. He was one of those men of the era who believed that sports built morals and wanted to turn Lake Placid into a winter sports paradise. The Club also served as the annual location of the biggest meeting of home economics and played a critical role in the professionalization of this field. Although this happened after Dewey’s death, his groundwork laid the path for the Winter Olympics to come to Lake Placid in 1932, which his son Godfrey helped lead.
So you might think–as I did–that this is a nice, fun post about a figure in America we’ve all heard of but didn’t really know much about. But no. This is American history after all.
See, the thing is that Melvil Dewey was an absolutely scumbag, one of the biggest reprobates imaginable. In fact, this was well-known at the time. For one thing, he thought the role of every woman was to have sex with him at any time he pleased. So he hit on anything that moved and was furious when they rejected his overtures. It was long rumored that he chose the women for the library program based on their breast size; that’s probably not true, but we know that it is fact true that he believed libraries should be attracted and required them to submit photographs with their applications so he could evaluate their looks. He had to step down from the American Library Association in 1905 because on a cruise to Alaska, he was hitting on every woman, four of whom complained. He was so well known to be a lecherous creep that he actually had to pay over $2,000 to a stenographer he felt up in public in the 1920s, embarrassing and outraging her to the point of filing a lawsuit. What’s more is that he moved to the classic defense of the worst kind of sexual assaulter, actually saying, I have been very unconventional … as men [are] always who frankly show and speak of their liking for women…..Pure women would understand my ways.” It was also noted that nearly every woman he hit on was a subordinate to him–of course.
I don’t know of any actual rape allegations against Dewey, but it’s pretty safe to say that he did engage in behavior well over the line of what we would call rape today, though in the 1910s and 1920s such things were even harder to prosecute than they are today. Oh yeah, he also tried to fuck his daughter-in-law, which forced his son and her to move out. Class act!
Second, Dewey was a stone cold racist and anti-Semite of the worst order. In fact, when he founded the Lake Placid Club, he was so determined to keep Jews out of it that he wrote incredibly exclusive language. This got reported locally: “No one will be received as a member or guest against whom there is physical, moral, social or race objection, or who would be unwelcome to even a small minority … This invariable rule is rigidly enforced. It is found impracticable to make exceptions for Jews or others excluded, even though of unusual personal qualifications.” When it was discovered that Dewey personally had created this language, he had to resign as New York State Librarian. Do you realize just how over the top anti-Semitic you had to be in 1906 to lose your job over it? Cancel culture!
After this, Dewey moved to his club full-time and lived there for most of the rest of his life, ensuring that only the right people lived nearby. That included buying up more around the Club so that no Jews would move in. It goes without saying that he was as anti-Black as he was anti-Semitic. For example, when it was mentioned that perhaps Booker T. Washington could visit, Dewey outright vetoed it.
Dewey also continued his ridiculous spelling reforms on the menu at the Club. One from 1927 read, “hadok, poted beef with noodls, parsli or masht potato, butr, steamd rys, letis, and ys cream.”
In conclusion, the Dewey Decimal System sucks and Library of Congress is superior even if you don’t know that Dewey was the worst person ever. But since he also was the worst person ever, even more reason not to use it!
Dewey died in 1931 of a stroke in Florida.
Melvil Dewey is buried in North Elba Cemetery, North Elba, New York.
This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader contributions. Thanks! If you would like this series to visit other librarians, presumably less utterly horrific as Dewey, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Charles Ammi Cutter, who helped create the Library of Congress system, is in Winchester, Massachusetts and Arna Bontemps, who was a key Harlem Renaissance figure and a long time librarian at Fisk, is in Nashville. Previous posts in this series are archived here.