December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
He began life as Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey, but soon .dropped the two middle names and shortened the first to Melvil. For a while he even tried to spell his surname “Dui.” He felt that, like most things in the world, his full name was a disorderly waste of time; and he devoted his life to setting things in order and saving time.
Melvil Dewey was born in upstate New York in 1851. His niece says that as a child “it was his delight to arrange his mother’s pantry, systematizing and classifying its contents. ” His reformer’s zeal was fully developed by the time he was fifteen, when he badgered his father into dropping from the stock of his tiny store that notorious thief of time, tobacco. His father acceded, the store failed, but Dewey rejoiced in being “morally ryt.”
On his eighteenth birthday he was already fretting over lost time. He had, he wrote, “accomplished during those eighteen years what I hope my children … will accomplish better in fifteen or less. … As far as education or discipline and development of the mind are concerned I am very sure fourteen years might accomplish it all.” He carried this interest in education with him into Amherst college, and in his annual character summary for his twenty-first birthday he announced “—my World Work—Free Schools & Free Libraries for every soul .”
As he studied the libraries nearby, he became increasingly distressed. They were citadels of disorder, with books classified by size, title, or name of author, by accession date, sometimes even by color. All that duplication of work from library to library, all that wasted time. “For months I dreamed night and day that there must be somewhere a satisfactory solution.” It came to him suddenly one Sunday while he was sitting through a “long sermon” without hearing a word. “I jumpt in my seat and came very near shouting ‘Eureka’! It was to get absolute simplicity by using the simplest known symbols, the arabic numerals as decimals with the ordinary significance of nought, to number a classification of all human knowledge in print.” After graduating in 1874, he continued to work in the Amherst library, perfecting his system. In 1876, at the age of twenty-four, he published the first of nineteen editions of A Classification Subject Index for Cataloguing and Arranging the Books and Pamphlets of a Library.
That same year he became a founder of the American Library Association. As its first secretary, he had the opportunity to promote his system. This he did relentlessly, and he continued to spread the word when, in 1883, he became librarian of Columbia College in New York. He immediately started reclassifying the college collections, established the first library school in America, and defended his stand with fierce eloquence when the administration got mad at him for admitting women.
With the school under way, he left Columbia to serve as director of the state library, where the legislation he proposed served, according to a contemporary, to “remove the reproach that New York had about the worst laws of any State in the Union for establishing and maintaining free public libraries and give it … the best. ”
While Dewey was racking up these successes, he was campaigning to overhaul the greatest time-waster of all. “Skolars agree,” he wrote, “that we hav the most unsyentif ik, unskolarli, illojical & wasteful spelling ani languaj ever ataind.” With orthography as vexing as that of nineteenth-century comic monologues, Dewey went on to call for the simplification of English. He insisted that once spelling was freed from the complexities and absurdities of the past and made uniform, three years could be saved in any child’s education. His zeal was such that he would correct his mail as he read through it.
While he campaigned, he and his wife Annie bought land in Lake Placid, New York. In 1895 they founded the Lake Placid Club, which grew to become one of the best-known resorts on earth. Part of its fame came from its exclusivity. With his obsessive categorizing, Dewey classified members according to degree of desirability even after they were admitted. And some people could not be admitted at all. “No one,” Dewey wrote bluntly in 1901, “will be received … against whom there is physical, moral, social or race objection. … This invariable rule is rigidly enforced; it is found impractical to make exception to Jews. … “As vigorous in the defense of a bad cause as a good one, Dewey stuck by his prejudice with the same belligerent tenacity he brought to all his affairs. In the end it forced his resignation from the State Library and ended his effective working life in 1906.
He continued as president of the Lake Placid Club, trying to keep his guests from smuggling in liquor and making sure all the menus were in his simplified spelling. One long-time visitor remembered that after a couple of weeks there, “a guest would have trouble spelling ‘mayonnaise’ for the rest of his or her life.”
After Dewey’s death in 1931, the menus returned to regular English spelling. His decimal system fared better. He lived to see it in use throughout the world and adopted by 96 per cent of the public libraries and 89 per cent of the college libraries in America. Roger Howson, librarian of Columbia University at the time of Dewey’s death, wrote: “Who among us can specify exactly the place that Dewey, who prepared a place for everything, holds himself? He needs no wreath of laurel (583.931), no stainedglass window (729.84), no pyramid (913.32). Go into any library and look around. From 010 to 999 the books are there in serried ranks, drawn up in regiments of knowledge, marshalled according to his plans of organization. He has made the lights so shine that the whole field is equally to be surveyed.”