How one library pioneer profoundly influenced modern librarianship
Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey was born on December 10, 1851 to a poor family who lived in a small town in upper New York state. Keenly interested in simplified spelling, he shortened his first name to Melvil as a young adult, dropped his middle names and, for a short time, even spelled his last name as Dui.
Dewey invented the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system when he was 21 and working as a student assistant in the library of Amherst College. His work created a revolution in library science and set in motion a new era of librarianship. Melvil Dewey well deserves the title of “Father of Modern Librarianship.”
Dewey changed librarianship from a vocation to a modern profession. He helped establish the American Library Association (ALA) in 1876; he was its secretary from 1876-1890 and its president for the 1890/1891 and 1892/1893 terms. He also co-founded and edited Library Journal. In addition, Dewey promoted library standards and formed a company to sell library supplies, which eventually became the Library Bureau company of today.
A pioneer in library education, Dewey became the librarian of Columbia College (now Columbia University) in New York City in 1883, and founded the world’s first library school there in 1887. In 1889, he became director of the New York State Library in Albany, a position he held until 1906.
Dewey’s range of knowledge and work was wide and varied. He pioneered the creation of career opportunities for women. He and his first wife, Annie Dewey, developed the Lake Placid Club, a resort for social, cultural and spiritual enrichment in the Adirondack Mountains. As an aforementioned spelling reformer, Dewey presented some of the early editions of the DDC in simplified spelling; his original introduction in simplified spelling was reprinted in subsequent editions of the DDC through publication of Edition 18 in 1971.
Melvil Dewey died after suffering a stroke on December 26, 1931 at age 80. Seven decades after his death, he is still primarily known for the Dewey Decimal Classification, the most widely used library classification scheme in the world.
Want to learn more about Melvil Dewey?
Read a biography authored by noted historian and library educator, Wayne A. Wiegand. Wiegand's book, Irrepressible Reformer, explains the early development of the DDC, the origins of the American Library Association and other endeavors undertaken by the often controversial Melvil Dewey.