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Melvil Dewey 1

Melvil Dewey: 1851-1931

The Father of modern librarianship
A Biography Assignment

Submitted by

Hanem A. Ibrahim

Summer 2009

ILS 503:S70

Hanem A. Ibrahim
Melvil Dewey 2


“It is not easy to write a biography of Melvil Dewey” With that sying Fremont Rider
started his preface of his book about Melvil Dewey. Rider had his own reasons to say so, but
how about me? I thought it is easy to write about that great man who changed our life as we
belong to that wonderful career. Who doesn’t know Dewey? When I started writing about him, I
found it’s very hard to give you in this assignment a short biography of the father of
librarianship, Melvil Dewey perhaps was the most influential and in most ways the most
controversial American librarian, His enormous energy and endless activity in every aspect of
librarianship, he was the leader who shaped the development of libraries, and because of him I’m
here now! Trying to put some words together to give him just a little from what he deserved.

Melvil Dewey
Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey, he successively dropped “Louis”, then “Kossuth” then
“le” of “Melville” and finally tried to shorten the “Dewey” to Dui, simply that was his character,
his idea of making everything easy, and that’s why he still standing on the top of the world of
librarianship. Dewey was born on December 10, 1851 to a poor family living in Adam Center in
northern New York. As a child, he felt drawn to mathematics and enjoyed playing around with
classification systems at a young age. In 1870 when he was nineteen, he attended Amherst
College. In his diary he said on July 13, 1870: “…I shall take the course which I think will give
me the most thorough culture and greatest ability to do good” and he did good, he studied almost
every subjects he needed to be good he studied: (philosophy, religion, law, Logic, political
science, languages (Latin, Greek, French, German), astronomy, algebra, geometry, chemistry,
physical culture, Literature, geography and history) these studies prepared him for the most
popular contribution of his life.

Dewey Decimal Classification system

Like many college students today, Dewey worked in the college library to help fund his
education. There he drafted that great scheme for book classification with which his name will be
forever linked. His affinity to the job at Amherst library enabled him to remain as a librarian
upon graduation in 1874. Following graduation, he worked towards improving library
classification systems, he searched for a way to classify books rather than the old impractical

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systems of classification used at that time where each book was given a dedicated spot on the
shelf. Dewey devised a system of Arabic numbers (000-999) and decimals to categorize books
according to subject. He received permission from Amherst to apply his new system to their
library. Amherst published his system in a pamphlet entitled A Classification and Subject Index
for Cataloguing and Arranging the Books and Pamphlets of a Library which is now in its 22nd
edition, and available in print and Web versions, The Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) is
the world’s most widely used library classification system. With this classification system we
can organize information on any topic under the sun. In the United States only, there are 95 % of
all public and K-12 school libraries, 25% of college and university libraries, and 20 % of special
libraries use the DDC. More than 200,000 libraries worldwide in 135 countries count on the
DDC to keep their collections organized so that their users can easily locate the resources they
need. DDC has been translated into more than 30 languages. While there are other systems in use
throughout libraries and universities, such the Library of Congress Subject Classification
System, Dewey's system has proven to be one of the easiest and most intuitive ways of grouping
subjects and dividing library items into accessible, memorable sections.

Lifework beginning

In April 1876, Dewey left Amherst and moved to Boston which has one of the best
education systems in the country, and high profile libraries. That day was a momentous one, not
only for him but for the whole library world. The American Library Association (ALA) was just
about to be born, with Dewey as its secretary and chief moving spirit ; the Library Journal, the
first library periodical was about to appear for the first time, and with Dewey as its editor; the
Dewey Decimal Classification was about to spread abroad to the outside library world. Dewey
was the founder of The American Metric Bureau (Library Bureau) the first significant provider
of library supplies and "fittings" for America's libraries. Dewey was a cofounder of the Spelling
Reform Association, and because of his interest in spelling he respelled his own name as I
explained before. Dewey appealed to congress concerning the reorganization of the Library of
Congress, he wanted it to be expanded as a national library serving as a center point to which
other libraries could refer. Other associations Dewey was involved with include the Children's
Library Association, the Association of State Librarians, and the American Library Institute.
Dewey was credited with the invention of the vertical office file. He also reorganized the N.Y.

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Melvil Dewey 4

State Library, and established the system of traveling libraries (boxes of books shipped by
wagons around the state) and picture collections. Under Dewey’s leadership of the New York
state added several new departments (a medical library, legislative reference services, and a
services for the blind. he also founded New York State Library Association.

Dewey’s contributions to the library school

From 1883 to 1889 Dewy was a librarian of Columbia College library where he set up the
School of Library Economy, the world's first library institution for training librarians (now
defunct). He admitted seventeen women to its first, twenty-member class. As a librarian at the
New York State Library from 1889–1906, Dewey founded another important library school at
Albany. Eight library schools were founded after that by the graduates of the Albany Library
School, and half of other library schools founded after that were also headed or staffed by
Albany graduates. Dewey pioneered the creation of career opportunities for women.

Dewey and the end of his professional life career

All the life of Dewey, his first interest was in books; he live, ate, drank, and slept books,
his interests extended to organizing the Lake Placid Club in 1894, Dewey and his wife started an
exclusive resort in upstate New York, he thought of that club as social and recreation club for
refreshment of mind and body after all these years of hard work, but he didn’t think that this club
will be behind the dramatic ending of his professional life, the main problem of that club was
that they did not admit anyone that other members found objectionable. Minorities such as Jews
and African were not allowed. In 1905, several prominent Jews demanded Dewey's dismissal,
and he was forced to resign a few months later from his last professional library position as the
director of the New York State library. Dewey's wife died in 1922. He retired to Florida and
continued to involve himself in librarianship. Dewey died from a cerebral hemorrhage or a stroke
on December 26, 1931, but his revolutionary organization system still stands today as one of the
most convenient and comprehensive tools today helping librarians and readers locate and classify
information. Dewey’s contribution to library development far better than writer could, he
devoted himself to his task, and the task molded him into greatness.

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Melvil Dewey 5

Dawe, W(1932) Melvil Dewey : Seer Inspirer Doer: 1851-1931 : biographic compilation.-
Library Edition.- N.Y: Lake Placid Club.-391p.
Kristen Patschke (2000) Melvil Dewey : the father of librarianship Retrieved on July ,10, 2009
from: http://www.booktalking.net/books/dewey/
OCLC. (2008) How one library pioneer profoundly influenced modern librarianship. Retrieved
on July ,10, 2009 from : http://www.oclc.org/dewey/resources/biography/
Rider, F( 1972) Melvil Dewey.- Boston: Gregg Press, 1972.( American library pioneers; 151p.
Stevenson, G. , Greene, J. (editors) (1983). Melvil Dewey : The man and the classification.-
Albany, NY: Forest Press .210p.
Vann, Sarah K (editor) (1978) Melvil Dewey: his enduring presence in librarianship.- Littleton,
Colo. : Libraries Unlimited, Inc., 278p. (The Heritage of librarianship series)
Wayne A. Wiegand .(1996) A biography of Melvil Dewey: Irrepressible Reformer .- Chicago:
ALA, 403p.
Wayne A. Wiegand (Feb. 2000) Dewey, Melvil: American National Biography Online
Retrieved, July ,10 ,2009 from : http://www.anb.org/articles/09/09-00229.html
*The photo of Melvil Dewey. Retrieved on July11,2009 from :

Hanem A. Ibrahim