History Lesson: Inventing the Dewey Decimal System

History Lesson: Inventing the Dewey Decimal System
Published: Jul. 14, 2023 at 6:25 AM EDT
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WATERTOWN, New York (WWNY) - At most any public or school library, you’ll find your next read with the help of little white tabs. The Dewey Decimal System was invented by Melvil Dewey, who was born and raised in the north country.

“He was born in Adams Center in December 1851,” said Jefferson Community College library director John Thomas. “He was one of the earliest library pioneers and he revolutionized libraries and had an enormous impact.”

Dewey was a lover of education, but, growing up rural, recognized the need for some literary improvements.

“Libraries, quite frankly, needed help,” Thomas said. “They were disorganized, so that led to his first crowning achievement, which was the Dewey Decimal Classification System.”

Dewey assigned numbers to 10 categories, and books falling within those broad categories could be broken down into subcategories using decimals.

“The idea is that when you come to the shelf, the same series of topic and subtopic are next to each other,” Thomas said

The method was adopted all over the world. And Dewey was only in his 20s. He blazed on and started the American Library Association, the Library Bureau, and the very first library school. The state of New York even hired him as the state librarian

He’s even credited for creating the library card, which he insisted be slightly smaller than an index card, to fit in classification drawers.

He also tried making a new way of spelling.

“At some point in his life, he became obsessed with death and did not want to waste any time,” Thomas said. “Why use three ways to spell one word when you can phonetically put a few letters in and save time?”

Even his own name became shortened.

“Melville, the traditional spelling, he shortened to Melvil,” Thomas said.

The spelling only really took off in the Lake Placid Club... which he founded with his family in 1895.

“It’s he and his son who introduce winter sports to Lake Placid,” Thomas said. “The reason the ‘32 Winter Olympics were in Lake Placid were in some ways due to Dewey.”

But Dewey wasn’t without his faults. As good a reputation as he had for academics and winter sports, it was tarnished by his personal beliefs.

“Unfortunately, he has a legacy of antisemitism, racism, you could consider him a serial sexual harasser of women,” Thomas said, “but despite that he certainly made his mark on libraries and that’s why people still talk about Melvil Dewey.”