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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Melvil Dewey and Today

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, April 12, 2015


Many people today received their first library experience in their local school library.  It may have been a period of using the school library, or it could have been a designated library time with instruction by the school librarian.


I can remember marching down the hallway of my elementary school to the school library for instruction and for the selection of a book for a report.  It was “my” book and nobody else in the class was reading that particular title.


Lots of other people remember being a library volunteer in their school library, collecting the book cards for books being checked out.


Still other people’s first experience in a library relates to their local Public Library, and holding their mother’s hand as they were taken into the public library to begin their library habit.


Before 1990, either experience probably included an introduction to the card catalog, drawers and drawers of 3 x 5 cards held in place by a metal rod.  Following the traditional librarian lecture about the use of the card catalog, most of us from that era smiled but didn’t have the slightest idea what the librarian was talking about.


That was followed by a second lecture regarding the Dewey Decimal System which was as clear as mud; all these numbers that somehow organized the library into a usable format.


I was a volunteer in my high school library when the librarian handed me a stack of catalog cards to file in those cabinets, and I had to admit that I didn’t have the slightest idea how to do it, or how this thing worked, let alone how this Dewey Decimal System worked.


The high school librarian had earlier been my 2nd grade school teacher, and after her shocked look, she smiled and we sat down at a table for a soft, gentle course in card filing and the Dewey Decimal System.


Melvil Dewey published his system of book arrangement in 1876 with the title, “A Classification and Subject Index for Cataloging and Arranging Books and Pamphlets in a Library.”  It is an innovative scheme of superimposing a system of decimals on all of knowledge and was first outlined by philosopher Francis Bacon and later modified by American educator William Torrey Harris.


The system has the ability to expand and grow as knowledge does, and today Dewey’s system is owned by OCLC, Inc. in Columbus and we are in the 23rd unabridged edition.


Despite assumptions to the opposite, most public libraries today still use Dewey to organize our collections including non-book products.


Melvil Dewey (1851-1931) was an interesting person, educated in a New York Baptist Seminary and Amherst College where he developed the feeling that a simplified phonetic form of spelling and the metric system would improve America.  He tried to change the spelling of “Dewey” to “DUI” but failed, so only removed the final “LE” from his first name.


In 1874, Amherst hired Dewey to reorganize their college library, which led to the development of his classification system.  In 1876, he founded the Spelling Reform Association, the Metric Bureau, and the American Library Association.


He also established Library Bureau, a private corporation that manufactured library equipment and furniture and continues today under a different name.


Have you ever used hanging files in a filing cabinet?  Yes, they were developed by Dewey as well.


Beginning in 1883, Melvil Dewey moved to Columbia University and went to work on their college library, and opened the first Library School for the training of librarians.


Dewey moved to the State University of New York, and became the first State Librarian of New York developing a library of a half million volumes.  He served as President of the American Library Association and produced model libraries in the 1890s for the World’s Fair and anyone who wanted to see them.


He was a proponent of expanded library service to all in America about the same time that Andrew Carnegie was funding over 1,500 public libraries in America.


In his retirement, Dewey formed the Lake Placid Club Foundation to continue his efforts at simplified spelling and metric conversion.  His efforts to promote and develop Lake Placid in New York led to the 1932 Winter Olympics being held there after his death.


I am unsure what effort Library Schools today put into learning the Dewey Decimal Classification, but there are a few of us that play Dewey games in our conversation.


Someday, I will check your 921 to see your 728 and the 392 that you do there, to determine if I want to be a 178 or 158 to you.