Dewey Declassified: A Revelatory Look at the "Irrepressible Reformer"

By Wiegand, Wayne | American Libraries, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Dewey Declassified: A Revelatory Look at the "Irrepressible Reformer"


Wiegand, Wayne, American Libraries


AFTER CREATING HIS DECIMAL CLASSIFICATION SYSTEM AND FOUNDING ALA, MELVIL DEWEY PUT HIS DECIDEDLY BUSINESSLIKE SPIN ON LIBRARY EDUCATION

By 1889, Melvil Dewey had already left a trail of innovative reform, business debts, and antagonized enemies. His Decimal Classification System was in its third edition. He had been instrumental in establishing the American Library Association. As librarian of Columbia College, however, his "self-righteous arrogance" had tested the limits of college officers until they pressed him to resign; there he had also founded the nation's first library school and further antagonized the administration by recruiting women. Among his many-discreditors was one who called him "aboutas miserable a specimen of a gabbling idiotas I had ever beheld." But devoted follow-ers, including his wife Annie, believed him an incorruptible genius. In 1889, appointed New York State Librarian and Secretary of the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York, he moved to Albany and took his library school with him - right into the Capitol Building.

When the library school transferred from Columbia to Albany in the spring of 1889,five instructors moved with it: Waiter Bis-coe, Ada Alice Jones, Florence Woodworth, May Seymour, and Mary Salome Cutler. Cutler took primary responsibility for the library school and was named vice director shortly after she arrived.

On paper, the curriculum did not change much from that at Columbia. Like Columbia's trustees, regents were willing to sanction the library school "provided no expense to the state is involved." Forced to run the school on a shoestring budget, Dewey once again compromised his agenda for formal library education. Saving the school by adapting it to tolerances of another indifferent environment was a higher priority. He pinched pennies where he could, and sometimes tried to increase revenue by expansion and outreach. Against the advice of already overworked faculty (who were not being compensated for services as instructors), Dewey began five-week summer sessions in July 1896, then extended them to six weeks in 1899. But unlike at Columbia, regents authorized degrees of bachelor of library science, master of library science, and the honorary degree of doctor of library science.

For most of Dewey's tenure as director, the library school was located in Room 31; lectures were held in Room 31A, a "little cubby-hole" that also housed an attractive fireplace around which students gathered as they listened to lectures. For his own lectures Dewey would rush in at the last moment, notes scribbled in short-hand on P-slips. He would begin almost immediately to pace back and forth and talk at the rate of 180 words per minute (some students actually counted), while students took notes furiously. Occasionally he would stop pacing, turn full square towards the class, draw his six-foot frame erect before them, and while slightly tipping his head back, address them by looking down his nose. Students remembered the jutting chin, the cocked head, the flared nostrils as he pressed a point. He did not communicate in the cold manner of a stereotypical bureaucrat, however, and he made it a point to remember every student's face and name.

The Dewey mystique

The sudden way Dewey appeared and then disappeared added to his mystique among library school students, many of whom remained in awe of his influence and shared a sense of being a pioneer in library history. Consistent with his belief that library education had to inculcate the "library spirit," Dewey fashioned a number of his lectures to inspire, to push the cause of libraries as active agents of conservative reforms. One student took copious notes on Dewey's opening "Librarianship" lecture, from which, she later remembered, "my enthusiasm for my work has gathered momentum ever since." Another recalled phrases Dewey frequently used that "stuck in my mind." "Libraries, big and small, must be built around the P-slip"; "Secure a cataloger with a cataloging mind"; "Don't spend time or fuss over the ephemeral"; "Work at 'concentrating cordiality. …

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