October 8, 2015

Melvil Dewey

Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey was born on December 10, 1851 in Adams Center, a small town in western New York state.

He is best known for his Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC), a system of organizing books by their subjects. The Samuel Read Hall Library at Lyndon State College and many other libraries worldwide use DDC. Dewey was working as a student assistant in the Amherst College library. He described how the scheme came to him during a sermon one Sunday in chapel:

After months of study, while I lookt stedfastly at {the pulpit} without hearing a word, my mind absorbd in the vital problem, the solution flasht over me so that I jumpt in my seat and came very near shouting “Eureka!” 1

As you can see from this passage, there is something that is unusual about Melvil Dewey. From an early age, he was interested in simplified spelling, a system which rebelled against the inconsistencies in English spelling. He changed his name from Melville to Melvil as a young adult, and even went so far as to change Dewey to Dui for a time.

The DDC created a revolution in library science and set in motion a new era of librarianship, and Dewey is known as the “Father of Modern Librarianship.”

He changed librarianship from a vocation to a modern profession. He helped establish the American Library Association (ALA) in 1876, co-founding and editing Library Journal. In 1883, while librarian at Columbia University in New York City, Dewey established the first library school to promote library standards.

“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.

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.” 2

But it’s his eccentric spelling that makes him weirdly fascinating.

1) Melvil Dewey, “Decimal Classification Beginnings,” Library Journal 45 (Feb. 1920) quoted in: Weigand, Wayne A. “The Amherst Method: The Origins of the Dewey Decimal Classification Scheme.” Libraries and Culture, v. 33, no. 2, Spring 1998, p. 1.

2) OCLC. “How one library pioneer profoundly influenced modern librarianship.” http://www.oclc.org/dewey/resources/biography/

Simplified Spelling Examples:
cofi (coffee), techer (teacher), unanimusli (unanimously), posibl (possible), meni (many), weits (weights), eficiensi (efficiency), tung (tongue)

Learn more about the spelling reform movement in H.L. Mencken’s The American Language.