Melvil Dewey and the Dewey Decimal System

Melvil Dewey (r) along with Mrs. Dewey and R. R. Broker

Melvil Dewey (r) along with Mrs. Dewey and R. R. Broker

On December 10, 1851, Melvil Dewey, librarian and inventor of the Dewey Decimal classification system for libraries, the DDC, was born.

Early Years

Melvil Dewey was born as Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey into a rather poor family in the upper New York state. After a school-fire, he was told to live only for one more year and became obsessed with efficiency, wherefore he gained his interest in simplified spelling early. Dewey left out his middle name, shortened his first name, and began spelling his last name “Dui”, but changed it back not long after. Fortunately, the doctors were mistaken and Dewey was able to improve his health situation. He briefly attended Alfred University (1870), 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.

He wanted to change the way education worked, and while occupied as an assistant at the library of Amherst College, he became frustrated by the random way the books were sorted. 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. It was in this period, when he began to completely change librarianship and invented the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC), which is he called the ‘Father of Modern Librarianship’ for.

Bringing Order into the Library

Before Dewey, other librarians began organizing their books as well, while the New York State Library sorted the books alphabetically by title, the British Museum gave its books a fixed location, making it hard to add more books to the collection. Some noted, that organizing books by subject matter was more efficient, but it was hard to decide what ‘subject matter’ was. While Francis Bacon in the 1600’s saw three categories (history, poetry, and philosophy), the Vatican only accepted two: sacred and profane.[4]-

Dewey got his inspiration from Nathaniel Shurtleff, who suggested to order books by a decimal system, but he found this not efficient enough and developed his own on “one Sunday during a long sermon … while I looked stedfastly at [the pulpit] without hearing a word, my mind absorbed in the vital problem, the solution flashed over me so that I jumped in my seat and came very near shouting ‘Eureka!‘”

His new system combined a numbering system and hierarchical topic classifications, while the numbers represented the various fields of knowledge. The advantage was the easy way to find a book in the shelfs and to find books related to the favored subject, also it was easier to introduce new subjects from then on. The system revolutionized libraries quickly and set the foundation for the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC) and other adaptations like the Korean Decimal System.

Dewey copyrighted the system in 1876 after the publication of his A Classification and Subject Index for Cataloguing and Arranging the Books and Pamphlets of a Library. 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.

Further Achievements

Among his other innovations was the idea of a state library operating as the controller of the state’s school and public library services. 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.” 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. Dewey’s Library Bureau company is also said to have introduced hanging vertical files, first seen at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. 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.

Later Life

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.  While Dewey’s influence in the profession of librarianship grew, he became the chief librarian at Columbia University, later director of the New York State Library and also secretary and chief officer of the University of the State of New York. He founded the Lake Placid Club along with his wife, a resort for social, cultural and spiritual enrichment and even expanded this institution to Florida.

Dewey established a pattern of making powerful enemies early in life, and many of his friends found him difficult as well. 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.” However, he seemed to have some issues working together with women. 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.” 

Melvil Dewey died of a stroke on 26 December 1931 in Lake Placid, Florida. Dewey was accepted into the “Hall of Fame” of the ALA for his efforts to standardize the library system. He also gave his name to Mount Dewey, a mountain in the Antarctic.

Joan Mitchell – The Dewey Ecosystem, [9]

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