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Dewey unbound

Dewey unbound

Melvil Dewey, born to thrifty, parsimonious parents in upstate New York on December 8, 1851, could almost be said to have been destined to devise the classification system used by 200,000 libraries around the world today. He was a man devoted to efficiency, and was an enemy of waste. At sixteen, having taught himself bookkeeping, he convinced his father to sell his general store because it was a losing proposition. Born Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey, he dropped his middle names and shortened his first name by his early twenties. For a while he favored spelling his last name Dui, but dropped this affectation long before ‘driving under the influence’ became a social and legal problem (he was, in fact,a strong proponent of teetotalism).

From the beginnings of his professional career at Amherst College, he single-mindedly pursued his various interests with a great driving energy, sometimes to the detriment of those who worked around him, and ultimately leading to his demise as a leader in the library field.


While still a student assistant at the Amherst library, he came up with the idea for his famous system of classification, and in 1876 published his simple yet ingenious plan: A Classification and Subject Index for Cataloging and Arranging the Books and Pamphlets of a Library. Originally a 42-page pamphlet, it is today in its 23rd edition, and has grown in size to four volumes with a total of 4,175 pages. Now sleekly packaged as DDC23, the text still follows Dewey’s philosophy, and his original format of 10 subject divisions with a subject index. Dewey explained his creation in the preface to the first edition:

The plan of the following Classification and Index was developed early in 1873. It was the result of several months study of library economy as found in some hundreds of books and pamphlets, and in over fifty personal visits to various American libraries. In this study, the author became convinced that the usefulness of these libraries might be greatly increased without additional expenditure. Three years’ practical use of the system here explained, leads him to believe that it will accomplish this result; for with its aid, the catalogues, shelf lists, indexes, and cross-references essential to this increased usefulness, can be made more economically than by any other method which he has been able to find. The system was devised for cataloguing and indexing purposes, but it was found on trial to be equally valuable for numbering and arranging books and pamphlets on the shelves.

The basic plan of the system was to divide all knowledge into 10 parts:

0 – general knowledge, including bibliography, general periodicals, and encyclopedias
100 – Philosophy
200 – Theology
300 – Sociology
400 – Philology
500 – Natural Science
600 – Useful Arts
700 – Fine Arts
800 – Literature
900 – History, including geography and biography

These parts can be sub-divided almost endlessly, which accounts for the voluminous 23rd edition.

As areas of knowledge expanded over the century, especially in the practical sciences such as engineering, the Dewey system accommodated the changes fairly well, although by the time the 13th edition rolled out in the middle of the 20th century, it was theoretically possible to string a Dewey number out to 23 digits.

As science and society changed, the several editions of Dewey began to recommend changes in the initial placement of categories – relocations – which although welcomed as progressive, were objected to by libraries because these shifts were expensive – requiring reshelving as well as re-labeling. Moreover, while many libraries adopted the system to their own needs, some standardization and centralization was called for. With a push by the American Library Association, the Library of Congress took over the assignment of Dewey numbers in 1933, and continues this function to this day, with a staff of nine in the Library of Congress cataloging division.

According to Julianne Beall, the Library of Congress’s assistant editor of Dewey Decimal Classification, these days the section’s most significant contribution is to the ‘Cataloging in Publication’ records that are provided to publishers, and found on a book’s imprint page. Dewey was still the system of choice for most libraries in the mid-50s, but within the next decade many large public and college libraries switched over to the Library of Congress system of classification. This competing system, which began in 1901, was preferred because it was more flexible and because its prefix lettering allowed for more readable, shorter, numbers over a wider variety of subjects.

Dewey is still alive and well in most public libraries of the United States and the United Kingdom. In addition to the printed guides, there is WebDewey, which is available by subscription, but can be viewed for free in its basic form. The Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) has been ‘owned’ by OCLC, since 1988 (OCLC is the non-profit  producer of WorldCat). Among the benefits touted by WebDewey: it provides ‘a logical system for organizing every item in your library’s unique collection’ and offers library users the ‘familiarity and consistency of a time-honored classification system’.

At a local branch of a public library in suburban Washington, a librarian was asked whether she had instructed any patrons recently on the value of the Dewey Decimal system. She replied that with the computer catalog, ‘our customers can just get the number and go to the shelf; they don’t really care about how a book is classified’. She said also that the library no longer needed to assign any numbers to match its collections or even label the books. That is now all done by the book vendor who purchases from the publisher in bulk and distributes to libraries.


Melvil Dewey died in 1931, long before the advent of modern electronic communications, but one could speculate he might be happy, even proud, of his work surviving into the 21st century on WebDewey. He was forward-looking in many ways. He had a lifelong interest in reforming spelling and adopting the metric system into the U.S. Recalling his championing of the metric system, Dewey wrote: ‘I desyded that the world needed just 1 mezur for length, 1 for capasiti, and 1 for weit, and that they should all be in simpl decimals lyk our muni’.

In his professional life Dewey’s accomplishments were many: he was instrumental in establishing the American Library Association in 1876, and was editor of the first five years of the Library Journal. Moreover, he established the first library school in the United States at Columbia University with 20 students in 1887: the ‘School of Library Economy’.

It was at Columbia that he began to experience friction with those he worked with and for. As stated in the Dictionary of American Biography, Columbia was ‘still attached to things of the past’ and ‘Dewey’s youthful vigor and overpowering energy, eagerness for opportunities to demonstrate his new ideas, and insistence of the absolute rightness of his convictions forecast anything but a tranquil future’.

By encouraging women to attend the new library school, he raised the hackles of the college’s trustees. What’s more, he raised eyebrows when he asked applicants, most of them women, to provide their weight, hair color, eye color, and a photograph. Dewey’s explanation that he was trying to ready these potential students for the job market for some reason seemed to placate the trustees. Nonetheless, Dewey soon resigned and took a job as the director of the New York State Library in Albany, taking his new library school along with him.

Over the next few years he was dogged by allegations of minor financial irregularities – for instance, he was accused of forcing his students to buy bicycles from him that he had purchased wholesale – that never seemed to stick to him, but as the Dictionary of American Biography notes ‘his energy and activity seemed to grow with the years; some of his friends regretted that his tact and discretion failed to increase in like measure’.  Perhaps illustrating this lack of tact, the New York Times reported 14 Aug., 1895, Dewey’s testimony before a state committee investigating him, to explain why charges were made against him.

‘He said he incurred the enmity of a certain official in the building and labor organizations.  The latter opposed him because at the time that 100,000 volumes belonging to the State Library were being removed from one floor to another he insisted that able-bodied laborers could carry fifteen books as well as three, especially as they rode in an elevator between floors.  He also objected to workmen sleeping during working hours.’

What finally brought him down professionally, and led to his resignation as director of the state library, began with a purchase of property in the Adirondack Mountains of New York that he used as a wilderness resort with his wife. Eventually they acquired more property and formed the Lake Placid Club, with 400 buildings and 10,000 acres. But Dewey had written the policy of the club to exclude all Jews ‘even when of unusual personal qualifications’. It was these anti-Semitic provisions, combined with the accretion of ill-will towards him over the years that led to his ouster in 1905. Furthermore, rumors swirled around him throughout his career about his inappropriate attitudes and behavior toward women, actions that nowadays would be called sexual harassment.

His resignation from the state library effectively ended his professional library career at age 54. A few days before he died at age 80 he wrote that he viewed himself as a sundial ‘wher no wheels get rusti or slip a cog or get tired & long for rest’.

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