Friday, December 17, 2021

Melvil Dewey - by Fremont Rider

December 10 was Dewey Decimal System Day  The date was chosen to coincide with the birthday of the system's namesake Melvil Dewey. In honor of this day I checked out a biography of Dewey from the library where I work (which does not use the Dewey Decimal System). I noticed that his birthday is mentioned several times throughout the work, starting with the first page, and including the fact that he was appointed to the New York Board of Regents on December 10, 1889 (this was included without highlighting the fact that it was also his birthday). 

The book, simply titled Melvil Dewey, was published in 1944, and mostly has praise for the man we now recognize as sexist, racist, and anti-Semitic. Although there is some mention in the work of these latter two identities they are downplayed. His clear bias toward Christianity can be found in the Dewey Decimal Classification system itself. The 200 range of the system is where books on Religion are found. Christianity is covered in the range of 220-280, and "other religions" are relegated to only the 290s.  

His sexism is disguised in the book with passages such as this one: 

All through his life, women were more congenial intimates with him than men; he was more at ease with them; he worked more to more purpose with them; he played with them with greater zest. 

While he did admit women to the Columbia University, essentially forcing the University into co-education, when he started the Library School, we now know that his reasons were less than altruistic. While he believed that well-educated women would make jim-dandy librarians he also left a legacy of low pay as women "were also more likely to get sick or leave the profession to pursue 'home life'". Furthermore, male librarians deserved more pay than women because they "could also lift a heavy case, or climb a ladder....There are many used for which a stout corduroy is really worth more than the finest silk." (See the link at the end of the post for more information on this.)

About 20 years ago the then-president (a man) of my university actually told the librarians (all of whom at the time were women) at a meeting to discuss salaries that we knew when we went into a female-dominated profession that we would make less money - that it was "societal". And that, after all, he couldn't be expected to solve this "societal problem". Why he couldn't try to solve it on our campus is another question. That president's sexist legacy lives on here as well. Librarians continue to work a twelve-month contact for less money than our faculty colleagues who work a ten-month contract. 

Melvil Dewey was also obsessed with simplifying things, especially spelling. He learned and taught shorthand, and changed the spelling of his first name from Melville to Melvil. As well, he attempted to shorten his last name to "Dui". 

An example of his writing included in the work reads

In skool in Adams Center I rebeld agenst compound numbers. I told the teacher that jeometri taut us a strait lyn was the shortest distance between 2 points & that it was absurd to hav long mezur, surveyor's mezur & cloth mesur; also absurd to hav quarts & bushels of difernt syzes & to hav avoirdupois, troy & apothecari weits, with a pound of feathers hevier than a pound of gold. I spred out on my attik room table sheets of foolscap & desyded that the world needed just 1 mezur for length, 1 for capasiti & 1 for weit, & that they should all be in simpl decimals lyk our muni.

He very much liked the metric system and advocated for the United States to adopt it. I remember when I was in Junior High in the mid 70s that we had to learn the metric system in math class because it was coming to the United States, and soon! President Gerald Ford and after him President Jimmy Carter were going to make it happen. Then Ronald Reagan was elected and just like that people stopped talking about the metric system and we are left only in the company of Liberia and Myanmar as the only countries not to have adopted the metric system as the standard system of measure.

While we cannot deny the legacy Dewey has left on the library profession, we are also experiencing a reckoning of the damage his legacy has left. Two years ago the American Library Association changed the name of the Melvil Dewey Medal to the ALA Medal of Excellence. More about Dewey's sexism and racism can be found in this article from 

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