Why did librarians remove Melvil Dewey’s name from their most prestigious award?
by Karen Lindell / Sept 27, 2019

“In June, the American Library Association stripped a familiar name from one of its top leadership honors: the Melvil Dewey Medal. As you may recall from grade school, Dewey was the man behind the Dewey Decimal Classification system, the schema of numbers and subject areas used at libraries around the world to categorize books. Founder of the nation’s first library school, co-founder of the ALA itself, and onetime director of the New York State Library, he’s usually revered as a library icon, his name perhaps the one most strongly associated with the institution. So what drove librarians to erase it from their own award? As it turns out, despite the wholesome associations Dewey has accrued in the public imagination since his death in 1931, the man was no saint. And librarians, long considered hushed and hushing pillars of decorum, are no longer keeping quiet about his amoral behaviors. The more sordid aspects of Dewey’s life may come as a surprise to modern readers, but they were public knowledge while he was living. Dewey was censured in 1906 by the ALA when several women complained about his improper behavior toward them—including unwanted kissing, hugging, and caressing in public. Dewey’s daughter-in-law even moved out of his home because she was uncomfortable around him. In addition to Dewey’s sexism, the ALA resolution to drop his name, which was ratified unanimously by the organization’s governing council, also cited his anti-Semitism and racism.

At a private club he owned on Lake Placid, Dewey did not allow Jews or blacks to become members or visitors. A club pamphlet read: “No one shall be received as a member or guest, against whom there is physical, moral, social or race objection. … It is found impracticable to make exceptions to Jews or others excluded, even when of unusual personal qualifications.” When news of the pamphlet became public, also in 1906, Dewey was forced to resign from his state library position. He defended himself, saying he had friends who were Jews, while also noting that a private club should be allowed to choose its members. Members of the ALA addressed the Dewey dilemma as part of the organization’s annual conference. Sherre Harrington, coordinator of the ALA Social Responsibilities Round Table’s Feminist Task Force, helped craft the resolution. Harrington, also director of the Memorial Library at Berry College in Georgia, said she was surprised the ALA didn’t find Dewey’s past problematic until now.

Melvil Dewey, The Ideal Librarian, 1899

“It wasn’t like he’s being judged by 21st-century standards,” she said. “He was called out repeatedly for his sexual harassment behavior during his time.” But Dewey, she said, is considered a legend, “and people will say he’s responsible for making it OK for women to be in the profession.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 79 percent of librarians are women. And yes, Dewey might be partly responsible for that. When he founded the library school at Columbia University in the late 1800s, he advocated for women to be admitted as students. He was hardly a feminist, however. In an 1886 speech titled “Librarianship as a Profession for College-Bred Women,” Dewey said that although women had the character and intelligence to be librarians (if they had a college education), they were also more likely to get sick or leave the profession to pursue “home life.” And women deserved smaller salaries than men, he said, because males, in addition to being capable of the same library work, could also “lift a heavy case, or climb a ladder. … There are many uses for which a stout corduroy is really worth more than the finest silk.”

In 1927, Dewey hired a stenographer whom he described (in “simple” spelling, which he championed because it eliminated extraneous letters) as a “dainty litl flapper” and “betr looking than I expected.” After he hugged and kissed her in public, she threatened to file charges and ended up settling with Dewey for $2,147.66. According to Wayne Wiegand, author of Irrepressible Reformer: A Biography of Melvil Dewey, Dewey was upset with the settlement not because he had been reprimanded for anything improper, but because he worried the stenographer might spread rumors that “she got $2,000 for no work.” Similarly unrepentant after he was censured by the ALA, Dewey insisted he hadn’t done anything wrong. “Pure women would understand my ways,” he said. Emily Drabinski, a librarian at the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and an at-large member of the ALA Council, was present at the vote to ratify the Dewey resolution. The group’s unanimous vote surprised her. “I expected a lot more drama, but there was none,” she said. “People clapped and cheered; I was blown away.” A partial impetus for the change was the ALA’s decision in 2018 to remove the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder from its top children’s author award due to anti–Native American and anti-black sentiment in her Little House on the Prairie series. (It’s now called the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.)

“Melvil Dewey with the 1888 class of the School of Library Economy at Columbia College”

According to Julius Jefferson Jr., ALA president-elect, in the post-Prairie aftermath, members began reconsidering other awards named after individuals who don’t meet the ALA’s current values. “Equity, diversity, and inclusion,” he said, have been a key focus of the ALA’s strategic plan for the past three years. Jefferson said he can only speculate about why the ALA is just now reckoning with Dewey’s demons, but thinks the #MeToo movement might be partly responsible. “This profession is predominantly female, and we didn’t want an honor bestowed on someone tied to discrimination against women, African Americans and Jews—someone who didn’t recognize the humanity of individuals,” he said. A 2018 article in American Libraries by Anne Ford titled “Bringing Harassment Out of the History Books: Addressing the troubling aspects of Melvil Dewey’s legacy” also influenced ALA librarians to take action against Dewey. Ford’s article questioned why Wiegand’s biography of Dewey did not create more of a stir when it was published 22 years earlier—by the ALA—in 1996. Unlike earlier Dewey biographies, Wiegand’s doesn’t whitewash his unsavory behavior.

Wiegand, of Walnut Creek, California, and an emeritus professor of library and information studies at Florida State University, spent 15 years researching and writing the book. Dewey was “very self-righteous” and had a zeal for reform, Wiegand said. However, Dewey’s racism and sexism, he believes, has been mostly dismissed over the years as the actions of a “naughty boy who was the product of his time.” With the ALA’s action this year, that forbearance seems to be coming to an end. What does this shift portend for Dewey’s intellectual contributions? The DDC might be the world’s most widely used library classification system, but like the man himself, it’s not without controversy. Critics say the subjects are heavily Eurocentric and favorable to Christianity.

The 200s of the DDC, for example, are devoted to the subject of religion. But the subcategories are nearly all focused on Christianity, with one section for “other religions.” Drabinski finds Dewey’s classification structure more offensive than any of his vices. “It’s all about white Christian power that has spread around the globe,” she said. “His personality pales in comparison to him as one individual dominating the structure of knowledge.” Violet Fox, Dewey editor with the Online Computer Library Center, which owns the rights to the DDC, said the system is continuously updated, and editors are now “focusing on gender identity and sexual orientation as well as providing new options for classifying works about Indigenous peoples.”* It’s unclear how quickly other library institutions will adopt the ALA’s new orientation toward Dewey. The Library of Congress has a brief webpage on Dewey that does not mention his sexism or racism, noting only that “[h]is legacy is complex.”

“The OCLC wants the classification system to stand on its own without the negative parts of Dewey’s life,” said Caroline Saccucci, Dewey program manager at the Library of Congress. A previous version of the biography on the website, she said, “was actually much more complimentary. OCLC decided to neutralize it to lessen the complimentary aspect, and the Library of Congress followed suit.” As for the ALA leadership medal, the resolution was sent to an awards committee that will recommend a new name for the honor, likely at the organization’s meeting in January. (The ALA has yet to reflect the name change on its website, which still refers to the “Melvil Dewey Medal.”) Harrington, the librarian involved in crafting the resolution, said she hopes the committee will come up with a name more befitting the honor, something that reflects the ALA’s “groundbreaking role in this country promoting the democratic sharing of information and intellectual freedom.”

by / Sep 3, 2021

“A lot of old things are racist. Mickey Mouse’s white gloves, for example. The concept of a peanut gallery. But public libraries? Impossible, right? Well, public libraries have a lot of race-related issues, from over-policing to an exclusive Master’s degree (I wrote about some of this here.) But one of the biggest obstacles to manifesting true racial justice in public libraries is the Dewey Decimal System. That’s right: the bedrock cataloging system that you learned in elementary school has a major racism issue. If you know anything about its inventor, Melvil Dewey, racism in the Dewey Decimal System may not come as a shock. However, in case you don’t, read on, and hold onto your socks. It’s actually hard to overstate Dewey’s contributions to public education.

“Low Library at Columbia University, New York, where Dewey was a head librarian”

His work led directly to the creation, not just of public libraries in his home state of New York, but to the entire concept of the free public library in America. He also invented the Board of Regents in New York, which became a template for public education across the country. And, of course, he invented the Dewey Decimal System. All this said, Dewey was racist as actual fuck. Even in his day, people were appalled at his antisemitism. He literally opened his own social club just to exclude Jews, including many of his own colleagues. (Needless to say, people of color weren’t welcome either.) In the early 1900s, there was an eventually-successful drive to expel him from public life because of his obvious and enormous prejudices. Dewey was kind of a dumpster fire of a guy. Unfortunately, his attitudes inform the cataloging system that he invented.

Dewey invented the Decimal System in 1873. He was 21 years old and already had a lot of big ideas, one of which involved organizing the library of his employer, Amherst College. To this end, he drew on the work of Sir Francis Bacon, a 16th century natural philosopher. Bacon had been an early pioneer of inductive reasoning, which is crucial to the scientific method, and he’d written at length about logical organization of knowledge for discovery in his book Instauratio magna. Dewey also claimed an Italian printmaker named Natale Battezzati as an inspiration. Battezzati had invented a card-based catalog for bookstores. Where Bacon had been dead for a couple centuries and change when Dewey embarked upon his fateful cataloging system, Battezzati was a living and well-known contemporary. Dewey copyrighted his decimal system in 1876 after sending it to a bunch of colleagues for critique. The first published edition was about 40 pages long. The modern version is hundreds. It’s important to remember the reasons that Dewey wanted public libraries to be a thing in the first place. He was no altruist; he believed that people and concepts belonged in certain places in society and that in those places they must stay. Poor people, for example, needed to be content with non-unionized factory work. Christianity was the only real religion. As for nonwhite people, was there really a need to address them at all?

The quickest possible glance reveals the racism in the Dewey Decimal System. We’ll use the religion section as an example. The 200s encompass all religion, nominally, although the problems with this premise are obvious. Each Dewey heading encompasses ten major subjects, dividing each up by subtopics that add digits to the end of the number. Six of the ten subjects in the 200s are explicitly for Christianity-related subjects. Three of those remaining are either explicitly or implicitly Judeo-Christian. Finally, at the bottom of the heap, the 290s cover“other” religions. Islam, Baha’ai, and Babism all get to share 297. Germanic religions get 293. All “religions of Indic origin,” in other words Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, get to share 294. Hinduism gets all of 294.5 to itself. How generous! 299 covers everything else, and we’re going to focus on this bit because it’s the most glaring example of racism in the Dewey Decimal system I can think of. You see where I’m going with this: religions Dewey associated with people of color ended up with way less space than the “real” faith. Not convinced? Fine. There’s a section in the 200s just for Black people. The entire 299.6 subdivision is for “religions originating among Black Africans and people of Black African descent.”

In fact, everything about “African religion of Haitians in Haiti” can be fit into 299.6097294, according to the DDS. Because at some point, someone — for some reason — decided that Haitian religions originating from Black people were not as important as “Germanic” religions originating from white ones. If that doesn’t make you mad, then you’re probably qualified to write a cataloging system in the late 1800s. But back up the outrage for a minute. It’s patently ridiculous and racist that the catalog shoves people of color into a corner, but does this racism in the Dewey Decimal System really matter? After all, the books are still there. You can still find them. But au contraire! Because the real problem here is the cutter number. That’s the long string of digits after the period in that call number above. Now think about the last nonfiction library book you borrowed. If you have one handy, grab it. If you happen to be reading in the library, amble on over to those shelves and take a gander at the spines of those books. Do you see any that bear a cutter number longer than four digits?

Of course not! Book spines aren’t that big and catalogers have better things to do than manage seven-digit cutter numbers. What that means is that catalogers boil down long cutters out of necessity. In the case of 299.6097294, our call number for Haitian religions of Black people, it’s likely to end up as 299.609, or even just 299.6. That would lump it in with all faiths with origins associated with Black people, both in and out of Africa, aside from Black Muslims. (They get to go in 297.8, “Islamic Sect and Reform Movements.”) As gross as it is that the system is classifying (and apparently prioritizing) religion by race, it’s actually quite significant that a shortened cutter number for Haitian Religion will make it much harder to find. Once local cataloging conventions reduce it to 299.609 or 299.6, its author’s last name will determine where it goes on the shelf. At that point, it won’t be with other books about Haitian religion, so people who look for it will need to comb through every book about Black non-Abrahamic religions alphabetically by author. Instead of using the system as a discovery tool, they’ll need to know exactly what they’re looking for right down to the correct spelling of the author’s last name. Thus do people of color get lost in the Dewey system.

Dorothy Porter in 1939, at her desk in the Carnegie Library at Howard University”

The problem with the 200s occurs again in the 300s, where almost everything about people of color can be classed under 305.8, “Ethnic and National Groups.” Within this subheading, Germanic peoples again get a relatively clean cutter — 305.82, to be exact. Meanwhile, 305.895 covers all East and South Asian peoples. You can probably extrapolate the problems with stuffing close to two billion people with literally hundreds of different cultures, languages, and collective priorities into the cataloging equivalent of a studio apartment. Meanwhile, Greeks get the relatively roomy 305.88 all to themselves and the British get 305.82. Because of course they do. It’s incredibly hard to re-catalog a collection. If that collection is part of a consortium or system of libraries, it becomes pretty much impossible. There are other, more flexible options for cataloging books out there — BISAC, a bookstore-like subject-based organization system, is one, although it has its own problems. However, people have also made some noble attempts to decolonize Dewey. Dorothy Porter, a librarian who worked at Howard University, might be the most well-known of these.

She is such an unsung boss that I need you to go read about her right now. Beyond heroic efforts by individuals, however, the death of the card catalog has been the main salvation of the Dewey system. Computerized library systems now allow keyword searches. These render the little numbers on the book spine essentially arcane except as unique locators. If you need a book about Malaysian meal etiquette, you can darn well ask the catalog and it’ll tell you, even if the book itself is swamped in a sea of foreshortened cutter numbers. But even as the effective racism of the catalog wanes, the sting remains. The racism in the Dewey Decimal System makes the prejudices and relative values of its creator abundantly clear, and to a certain extent, it’s not really a fix to work around it with technology. After all, not everyone has equal access to computers, or equal tech ability, for that matter. A messed-up shelving system still makes a difference to them just like institutional racism everywhere still makes the world a worse place. Until someone revamps the whole thing, it’ll remain a map of Dewey’s brain rather than the foundation of a truly public library.”




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