Biography of Melvil Dewey


AMONG the noted librarians of our country who have shown great efficiency, untiring devotion and unusual progressiveness in their calling, stands in the front rank Melvil Dewey, director of the state library and secretary of the University of the State of New York. Born December 10, 1851, in the rural village of Adams Center, Jefferson county, New York, he is the youngest son of Joel and Eliza Green Dewey. His love of books – a love which has never forsaken him – began as soon as he was able to read. His greatest delight was to be among books, arranging and classifying them to suit his juvenile ideas. He loved also to call them his own. Like Dr. Isaac Watts when a child, he would say when money was given to him: “A book, a book; buy a book.” When, in 1864, the present edition of Webster’s unabridged dictionary came out, this incipient librarian went ten miles to the book store in Watertown, and brought home the coveted volume for which he paid $12 of his own childish savings, the largest coin of which was a five-cent piece.

In 1865, when the collegiate institute was opened at Adams, three miles away, our boy was, of course, there as a pupil on the day of opening, and in 1867 he was one of the last students to leave its burning building. In 1868, in his 17th year, he began his work in education by teaching a district school in the town of Rodman. In the spring of ’69 he followed the old principal of the Adams institute to Oneida (N. Y.) seminary, and gained first place for scholarship. In the winter of ’69 the village school at Bernhard’s Bay, Oswego County, engaged the vice-principal of the Oneida seminary for its teacher, but, having a call to one of the leading academies he urged the trustees to give his place to his best pupil, Mr. Dewey, who took it and taught and managed the school with marked success. At its close he spent one term in the preparatory department of Alfred University in Allegany county, N. Y. Obviously his fit for college had been fragmentary and was one to two years less than full requirements, but with characteristic zeal he chose Amherst from the leading colleges of the country, as the one promising him the best education, and without knowing a single teacher, student or graduate, entered the class of 1874, with heavy conditions in Latin, Greek and mathematics. He not only worked off his conditions, but gained in each subject a place in the advanced division, and won prizes on competitive examinations.

From childhood he had announced his purpose of giving his life to the cause of education. His study convinced him that the school and college were alone unable to do the needed work in popular education, and that in the future the library was to be recognized as the essential complement of the school and as the real university for the people, most of whom could never attend any other. Thousands of able men and women were devoting themselves to the school side of education, but the new library side was not yet fully recognized.

At the beginning of junior year he, therefore, began giving fully half his time to studying library methods. His innate skill in such matters was soon discovered by the faculty and trustees, who were not slow to utilize it. During the rest of his course, and as long as he could be induced to remain in this narrower field, he was in full charge of the Amherst college library, which won an enviable reputation for its new methods, as he laid the foundation of his now exalted reputation as a broad-minded, progressive and skillful librarian. He there saw the great need of radical changes in library management. He deplored the general neglect of the college library, which was altogether too much over-looked as a factor in college education, being often attached to the chair of some ” overworked professor, or put in the charge of the janitor and opened four or five hours per week in term time only.” He was studying all this time how to remedy these defects and make such libraries more generally useful and popular. In this study he visited and inspected scores of other libraries, and found the same conditions as at Amherst, with the same crying need for improvement. Impressed with the importance of the great work of which he was destined to be an apostle, he finally gave up all other plans and decided to devote his life to this new profession, though it was then unheard of for a college student to announce librarianship as his chosen profession.

He found, scattered here and there, earnest and able librarians, but, with rare exceptions, each working without utilizing, and generally without knowing, what his fellows were doing. To attain any thing like the high ideal he had set, he recognized the necessity of putting in motion various agencies which should combine all these scattered efforts into a single epoch marking movement. These needed agencies were: –

I. An association of the most earnest American librarians, to promote esprit de corps and organized effort.

2. A monthly library journal devoted, not to the literary, but to the practical side, as a means of constant communication.

3. A library bureau, where could be focalized the library interests of the country, and where could be done much needed work impracticable for the society or the journal, such as equipping new libraries with the best modern methods and appliances for doing the highest grade of library work most economically and satisfactorily.

4. A library school training the most promising candidates, both men and women, as librarians of the modern type.

5. State recognition and encouragement, similar to that extended so recently in the history of the race to the school system.

So great results could be achieved only through the devotion and sacrifice of some earnest soul willing to work intensely and wait patiently for step after step to be taken, without losing faith in ultimate success.

Boston and its vicinity were conceded to be the best center on the continent in which to undertake such a work, while it was utterly impracticable in the country village of Amherst. In 1876, therefore, declining the urgent and flattering invitations of the trustees of Amherst College to remain as their librarian, Mr. Dewey moved to Boston, and devoted himself with all the enthusiasm of a genuine student and originator to popular education through broadening, simplifying and systemizing library work. The task he had undertaken was difficult. His idea was to strike out from the old, beaten paths regarding libraries and their management, to raise the college library to the rank of a distinct university department, and to make of the free public library a people’s college.

In a recent address, in noticing the change already-brought about, he truly says: ” The old library was passive, asleep, a reservoir or cistern getting in but not giving out; an arsenal in time of peace; the librarian a sentinel before the doors, a jailer to guard against the escape of the unfortunates under his care. The new library is active; an aggressive, educating force in the community; a living fountain of good influences; an army in the field, with all guns limbered; and the librarian occupy a field of active usefulness second to none.”

From the first, Mr. Dewey took a broad view of the whole library subject, and brought all his energy and intellectual resources to bear on the accomplishment of his thoroughly digested plans and high aims. By personal visits, urgent correspondence and contagious enthusiasm, he succeeded in interesting the leading librarians of the country in his plans, so that within six months after going to Boston three of the five agencies were well started. The American library association, of which he has from the first been the secretary in charge of its offices, property and work, now includes several hundred of the best library workers of the Union. The Library Journal, of which he was managing editor till 1881, when pressure of other duties compelled him to resign active work to his former associates, appeared during the week of the first meeting of the association and has gone on till now. Fourteen volumes of this pre-eminently practical monthly, each minutely indexed, have been completed, and are an unequaled mine of valuable and interesting matter for librarians.

The work of the library bureau, which has steadily grown during these fifteen years, was also begun at once in the same office where Mr. Dewey, as secretary, manager and editor, did literally the work of three men without receiving the salary of one; for there was no endowment from which to pay for this much needed missionary educational work, and neither the Journal nor the library bureau was a money-making institution, but it was counted a good year that showed no direct loss.

As the new education was to come through reading, it must fail if the masses were unable to read, and in face of the growing illiteracy even in Massachusetts, a score of the best-known, thoughtful educators, recognizing the two great obstacles to universal primary education, after investigation and estimates, signed a statement drawn up by Mr. Dewey, expressing the belief that a full year of the school life of every child might be saved by complete adoption of the international decimal or metric system of weights and measures in place of compound numbers, and that two or three years could be saved if the absurdities of English spelling were eliminated. The full work of the library could only be done by stemming this tide of illiteracy, and so Mr. Dewey again took the laboring oar in founding, in 1876, two more national educational societies, the American Metric bureau and the Spelling Reform association, each devoted to removing a great obstacle to general education.

For fifteen years he has continued to be secretary of all three associations. Besides editing, from time to time, departments devoted to some phase of his work, he has started and edited the Metric Bulletin changed later to Metric Advocate, and the Spelling Reform Bulletin, changed later to the quarterly magazine Spellings in addition to the monthly Library Journal and the quarterly Library Notes, a magazine of librarianship started in 1886, to help the large class of libraries not reached by the more costly journal.

The success of the American library association in its first year was so evident, that the principal English librarians were anxious to follow its lead, and Mr. Dewey consented to go to London for the organization of a library association of the united kingdom, undertaking to take with him two or three leading American librarians. He succeeded in raising a delegation of twenty-two (the largest from any country, except England) at the international conference called in London. In evidence of their appreciation this new association enthusiastically adopted the Library Journal as its official organ, and eight of the foremost English librarians accepted invitations to serve as his associate editors without salary.

A cardinal principle with Mr. Dewey is that we must stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before, and fully utilize the experiments and experience of others, if we are to make any substantial progress. He has, therefore, traveled many thousand miles in this country to visit and study the workings of American libraries, and as this sketch goes to press he is again crossing the Atlantic to study the administration of the best libraries, museums and universities, and specially, the important recent educational movements for extending the work of the old universities among the people.

His reputation as a most skillful specialist in his profession having become widely extended, new and enlarged fields of usefulness was opened to him. In 1883 he became chief librarian of Columbia College, and in 1887, professor of library economy and director of the Columbia College Library School, which was a creation of his own, and of which the remarkable and practical success has justified his most sanguine hopes. Albanians may congratulate themselves that the school was so wholly Mr. Dewey’s in inception, plan and administration, that the leading librarians of the country considered it essential to general library interests that it should continue under his personal direction. This fact has enabled the regents to secure its transfer to the state library, where it promises to do an even greater and better work than in New York, without involving any expense to the state.

This school takes selected candidates, after graduation from the literary colleges, and gives them a two years’ thorough professional training for librarianship. It has already drawn pupils from all sections of the country from Maine to California, and at present thirteen states are represented, though less than twenty pupils are admitted from about one hundred annual applicants. The school has won the highest encomiums from leading librarians and the press, at home and abroad. Each year shows more clearly that it will be perhaps the most important factor in the modern library movement, since it is scattering through the country enthusiastic apostles, each of whom enlists the active interests and sympathies of new circles.

When Mr. Dewey took charge of the Columbia college library in 1883, it was practically unknown outside the college grounds, and equally unknown to many inside who completed their four years’ course without ever crossing its threshold. When he left it in 1888, it was opened ten times as many hours, including all holidays and vacations, its great hall and smaller reading-rooms were thronged with readers; its shelves had received in the six years as many books and pamphlets as in the preceding one hundred and thirty since the college was founded; it had won its place as an important factor in the literary life of New York, and its reputation had spread wherever libraries were known. Numerous very complimentary articles and references appeared in European journals, a leading literary weekly of London, in its editorial columns, speaking of “the best administered library in the world, that of Columbia college in New York.” The New York Evening Post said in an appreciative full column editorial: “The institution in its new and improved form is so recent that not one New Yorker out of five hundred knows of its existence. Yet visiting-foreigners have expressed the highest admiration for its methods and conveniences for effective work.”

The leading Canadian literary journal The Week, of Toronto, in discussing “libraries and education” said: “One of the leading spirits in bringing about modern reforms in library administration is Melvil Dewey, now secretary of the University of the State of New York at Albany. Until 1888, Mr. Dewey was librarian at Columbia College, New York. His predecessor had been the college janitor. When Mr. Dewey’s five years of service came to an end he left the library more than doubled in extent and in arrangement and management the best in the world. From occupying several inadequate rooms scattered about the building, accessible only a few hours in the week, the books now fill the handsomest hall in New York – a hall perfectly ventilated, sumptuously furnished, lighted by electricity, and open fourteen hours a day. Mr. Dewey, whose organizing mind has in effect created this superb library, is the author of what is known as the “decimal classification” for libraries.

M. B. Buisson, for some years employed by the French government as its representative in foreign countries and at various worlds’ fairs in studying libraries and higher education, in his official report on the New Orleans exposition and the American visits made in connection with it, gave several pages to unstinted praise of the work done by Mr. Dewey, from which space allows only a brief extract: ” Columbia college has, above all, a library of the first rank. I have visited the library of Harvard University; of Oxford, and of Cambridge, England, as well as those of several German universities, but in organization and facilities for work, I do not believe that the library of Columbia College can be surpassed. It seems to me exactly to realize the ideal of a university library; not yet in number of volumes, though it possesses already more than 75,000, but in its equipment and administration. It has a character of its own which deserves to be studied, especially now when the reconstruction of the Sorbonne necessitates the reorganization of our own university library.

“Six distinct collections have been formed into a single library, provided with all the improvements which the Bodleian, the British museum, and the Bibliotheque nationale could suggest. The new librarian, Mr. Melvil Dewey, elected in 1883, who planned and carried out this transformation has accomplished a truly herculean task.”

Mr. Dewey has spent much time during the past sixteen years in developing improvements in library economy, and hundreds of libraries are using devices, appliances and methods copied from other libraries or described in various books and pamphlets, but which originated in the experiments and studies conducted since 1876 by Mr. Dewey, or under his inspiration, in the library bureau or library school.

The phrase often met in library publications of the ” Dewey system ” has no definite meaning, for though he has been called on in hundreds of cases to plan or revise the systems used, he has no stereotyped form but studies each problem by itself, to find what seems calculated to do most good, considering all the special circumstances, and no two of the many library buildings and systems which he has helped to plan are exactly alike.

Because of its publication and wide distribution he is best known for his work on classification, which is often called the Dewey system, and is adopted in many of the best managed libraries of both Europe and America. It was published first as “Classification and subject index for cataloging and arranging books and pamphlets of a library” (Amherst, 1876). A second edition greatly enlarged appeared as “Decimal classification and relative index” (Boston, 1885), and in 1888, under the same title, a third; and in 1890, a fourth edition. He also published “Rules for author and classed catalogs, with fifty-two facsimiles of sample cards” (Boston, 1888), followed by a revised and enlarged edition as “Library school card catalog rules” (Boston, 1889).

He has also in preparation, and has already printed, detached sections of a series of library handbooks, which will cover the whole field of library economy, as well as classification and cataloguing.

Besides the books appearing under his name, Mr. Dewey has contributed not a little to other books and pamphlets, and very largely to periodicals, though much that he has written has been unsigned. Some idea of his activity is gained from the fact that we find in the index to articles, notes and references in the first fourteen volumes of the Library Journal eight hundred and seventy-five entries under his name. From the first he has declined all invitations to write, speak or join societies, clubs or other bodies, except in the direct lines of his chosen work. Those who understand the relations of its many phases will see that he has followed strictly the original program laid out in boyhood, and has steadily denied himself most of the pleasures of society and literary and social life, because his chosen work demanded every available hour, and he is as jealous of any thing that takes from his time or strength as if in training for a race. He claims that he gets as much rest by changing from one phase of his work to another as by stopping all labor and engaging in the usual recreations, and his uniform good health and unusual endurance of long hours of intense work seem to justify his theory.

While he has done much himself, his greater work has been in stimulating and inspiring others to accept his broader views, share his faith and take an active part in the needed work which can be carried on only by the efforts of thousands. He often says ” my plans involve a hundredfold more work than I can ever do, but if by the efforts of my life I can induce one hundred men and women each to do one per cent of this work, the whole will be accomplished.”

Thus, it was in his office that the New York Library club was organized with over fifty members for promoting library interests in New York City and vicinity. All its meetings were held in his library till he resigned the presidency when called to Albany. There also was incorporated, and there met, the Children’s Library association, whose constitution, drafted by Mr. Dewey, stated its object to be ” to create and foster among children too young to be admitted to the public libraries, a taste for wholesome reading. To supply the children, for use both at home and in free libraries and reading-rooms, with the books and serials best adapted to profit them, and to prepare them for the wisest use of the public libraries.”

In the same place were formed the New York branch of the Spelling Reform association and the New York Language club, of which President Barnard and David Dudley Field were the first presidents, and Mr. Dewey the secretary and treasurer; the object being ” to consider practical questions connected with language, its use and improvement,” and its members including well-known and scholarly New Yorkers. Its meetings were largely attended till discontinued because of the secretary’s removal. President Barnard of Columbia was also president of the American Metric bureau in Boston, founded in 1876 by permanent secretary Mr. Dewey, and of the American Metrological society which met always at Columbia, and of which Mr. Dewey was also secretary. It is to the efforts of this society that we are chiefly indebted for the success of the campaign which did away with the absurd confusion and annoyances of local time for every village, and gave us the present system of standard time. ‘ It will be seen that every one of these organizations was directly advancing the work chosen by Mr. Dewey in his boy-hood, so none of the energies devoted to them was wasted or diverted from the main purpose. As their work was confined almost wholly to New York City, Mr. Dewey resigned all these offices in order to give his entire time to the greater field open in Albany.

Within six months after his election by the regents, there was held at St. Louis a national convention which resolved itself into a permanent association of state librarians. In spite of Mr. Dewey’s protest that he had led in more than his share of library enterprises, the association unanimously elected him president, and already there is abundant evidence that a great and most valuable work is to be accomplished by the new body.

He has also delivered many addresses – all extemporaneous, for he is too busy to write – before schools, colleges and educational meetings. His address in 1886, before the Association of Collegiate Alumnae on “Librarianship as a profession for college-bred women,” was widely circulated by the association as a document of peculiar value to a 1 interested in woman’s higher intellectual work. On July 1, 1888, he spoke before the university convocation of the state of New York on “Libraries as related to the educational work of the state.” The convocation itself unanimously indorsed and asked the regents to adopt the radical views then advanced. The regents in turn gave hearty support and asked needed legislation, and the new university law of June 15, 1889, provides for carrying out his plans.

The death of the state librarian, Dr. H. A. Homes, and the resignation of the secretary and treasurer of the university. Dr. David Murray, made it necessary for the regents to fill these important offices. After much discussion it was determined to enter on a greatly enlarged work for which the time seemed ripe, if the right man could be found to undertake it. Extended inquiries led the regents to think one man specially fitted by his peculiar training and experience for the new work, and the three offices of secretary and treasurer of the university and director of the state library were combined into a single position, to which, on December 12, 1888, Prof. Dewey was unanimously elected. Many who knew him only through his reputation as a librarian hastily inferred that he was an eminent bookworm, while in fact he has always disclaimed all credit as a bookish librarian. He is primarily an educator, and became a librarian solely because that side of the educational field seemed most fruitful. Museums, he claims, to be but another form of libraries, in which one reads from the book of nature instead of from print, and his plans include museums as essential parts of well-equipped libraries. When, therefore, the only state in the Union having a department devoted wholly to higher education, and at the same time in full charge of the state library and state museum, offered its unrivaled facilities, and almost boundless possibilities of development, the man who had given his life to exactly this work had no choice but to accept what was clearly the ideal position from which to carry forward the good work already begun.

At the university convocation of 1889, Mr, Dewey delivered an admirable address on “The extension of the University,” outlining his plans for making more widely useful the organization which is hereafter to do so much more than its excellent work in the past.

In personal appearance Professor or as he much prefers to be called. Secretary Dewey, is above the ordinary size, standing over six feet and weighing nearly two hundred pounds. He has an active, nervous temperament, which finds real pleasure in work and unhappiness in idleness. With his varied and onerous duties, not only as director of the state library, but also as secretary of the university with all the colleges and academies of the empire state, his hands are full of labor. Always on the alert, his mind is deeply occupied in his professional pursuits. He is rapid in movements, rapid in speech and rapid in dispatch of business. He is supremely devoted to his calling, and with a generous hand has expended all his earnings in the study and advancement of his favorite work, and in aiding and encouraging others of similar tastes to follow in his steps.

July 11, 1890, on call from Secretary Dewey, forty-three librarians and educators met in the State Library and organized the New York Library association “for promoting the library interests of the state of New York.” The wisdom of this step was shown by its reception. Within two months Iowa and New Hampshire had organized similar associations, and leaders in five other states had decided to do so without delay.

As the last proof of this sketch passes the author, September 15, 1890, the press reports the close, in the White Mountains, of the largest and most successful conference of librarians ever held. On Thursday the New York Library association elected Melvil Dewey President. On Friday the association of State Law Librarians made the same choice, followed next day by the national body, thus curiously combining in one man the presidency of all three associations. We close our sketch by quoting from the Boston Transcripts account of “The Librarians’ Congress:” “Mr. Melvil Dewey is par excellence the best-informed man in the United States in the science of library progress. He brings to its discussion a wide knowledge of its every detail, born of many years’ experience. The enthusiasm and vigor which he throws into every word that drops from his lips is refreshing and strengthening to others. He sets the pace, so to speak, which, if followed, is sure to lead on to victory and success. Obstacles seem to him to be a pleasure, that he may study them and wipe them away. He is an ever-loaded magazine of thought and suggestion. It only needs the opportunity to ignite the flame, resulting in the explosion of a volume of common-sense ideas, which always seem to fall on fertile ground, soon to bear their good fruit.”



Noted living Albanians and state officials , A series of biographical sketches. 1891.

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