Melvil Louis Kossuth Dewey

10 December 1851 - 26 December 1931

Born in Adams Station, New York, Dewey's early schooling was largely informal and intermittent. He entered Amherst College at the age of eighteen. From there he embarked upon his legendary career in librarianship.

He started by comprehensively examining the great libraries of New England. What he found appalled his sense of frugality and efficiency. The predominant practice of most libraries in that era was to base the arrangement upon a book's physical location upon the shelf within a certain range. Thus, books on the same subject were often not adjacent to one another. When a library's holdings outgrew the physical dimensions of the structure, the entire collection had to be renumbered both on the books and in the catalog, a highly inefficient and costly procedure.

Dewey's most enduring contribution was "his" idea of decimal notation, numbering the contents of the books, rather than the physical objects. (Dewey actually adapted the process from Mr. W.T. Harris, who had utilized a similar but cruder scheme in the St. Louis Public Library. One facet of Dewey's genius was his proclivity to borrow and improve upon the ideas of others.) This inspiration evolved into his Dewey Decimal System (now DD Classification), first implemented in Amherst College in 1873 and first published (anonymously) in 1876. DDC is currently in its 21st edition, and is the most widely used classification scheme in the world.

Dewey is also identified as the force that brought about the Conference of Librarians in Philadelphia in 1876, at which the American Library Association was born. His association with F. Leypoldt and R. R. Bowker launched the Library Journal and ensured its continued publication and dissemination.

Dewey the man is often cast in a disparaging light, primarily due to what is interpreted as a lust for power. But Dewey's acquisition of power enabled him to implement his ideas. For nearly 30 years he served concurrently as Secretary of the Board, Treasurer of the Board, and Director of Libraries of the State of New York. This considerable power base was augmented further by his influence within the ALA, of which he was elected President twice during the 1890's. His achievements from the era in which he wielded the most power include establishing a library school at Columbia, laying the groundwork for shared cataloging with LC, and standardizing supplies, tools, methods, and education. Dewey organized the first state chapter of the ALA (NY); it would serve as model for all the other state chapters that followed.

Dewey was eventually undone by the powerful bureaucratic forces which he himself had set in motion. Ultimately he was deposed from his New York "monarchy" in 1906 by his once bitter rival who had since become his boss, A. S. Draper. Dewey spent his final 25 years in virtual seclusion at his home in Lake Placid, New York.

Where would we be without Mr. Dewey? At the moment that American librarianship needed a visionary with the force necessary to forge direction from lassitude, Dewey grasped the hammer and pounded order into an unformed ingot. The sparks yet fly from his anvil.



Last updated 0950 DST, Sunday, 19 April 1998.