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If You Knew Dewey (broken up in parts


1. Melvil Dewey, the father of the modern library system, was one strange guy.
But his classification system is still used in most of the world

2. The year was 1851 and it was an age of scientific discoveries, increased
education, and redefined religion.

3. Most people stressed that hard work, social responsibility, and education were
the preferred routes for a meaningful life.

4. Melvil Dewey, who grew up during this time, had a rather exact and
determined personality, and he quickly grew into a force to be reckoned with.

5. Very early on, for example, he catalogued his mother's kitchen for better
efficiency. He put everything away on the shelves according to their type,
container shape, and then alphabetical order.

6. So, all the flour and sugar in sacks went on one shelf, and then all the beans
and peas that were in cans went on another shelf, and then the cereal and rice
that were in boxes went on other. But, then the next day he might rearrange
them all alphabetically instead with the broccoli going next to the beans that
were stored with the beets and burritos. This, of course, drove his mother

7. Dewey, though, also possessed a great passion for learning and by age 13 had
saved enough money to buy what he considered "the most essential book"
an unabridged dictionary. All of his life he consulted the dictionary almost
daily in his quest of the knowledge of using language correctly.
8. In fact, some 60 years later, a friend wrote that seldom was a meal in the
Dewey household "not interrupted by dictionary research. We argued
constantly about pronunciation and definitions, and I can still see Dewey
dashing from the dining room, his napkin hanging from his vest, in his search
of accuracy in his favorite book.

9. Melvil Dewey was an odd man even by the standards of his day. When he
first went to college, for example, he said straight out that he did not intend to
socialize during his time in college.

10. This was due to his somewhat serious nature and to a lack of pocket
money, as he was not from a well-to-do family. Despite this announcement,
there is evidence that he could not resist the young ladies and was known to
sometimes date two or three in one night.

11. Then, Dewey began working in the library at his college as a way to earn
some much-needed money. The inefficient way that books were catalogued
and shelved (in the order that they had been purchased) bothered Deweys
orderly mind, so he threw himself into studying the problem.

12. He visited other libraries, chatted with librarians, studied systems that
were currently in use, and read about proposed ones. He HAD to find a better
way to arrange those books!

13. Then, in Dewey's words, One Sunday during a long boring lecture
sermon in church the solution came to me and I was so excited that I
jumped in my seat and yelled 'Eureka!'" He had his answer!!!
14. His idea, of course, was to use numbers and decimals to classify all
human knowledge, thus marrying the idea of arranging books by subject with
a numeric system. This, of course, is the system that libraries still use today!

15. Dewey spent the next few months feverishly working out the details of
his scheme. He convinced his college to let him re-classify its library, and then
published his system and began to promote it.

16. Deweys goal was not to become famous but rather to have every library
in the world use his system so that libraries would become easier to use and
efficient. And they would all be arranged the same! All books would be
logically arranged into 10 different categories.

17. Along with the library world, though, Melvil Dewey had many other
interests. Yes, he wanted to reform the library world, but these weren't
Dewey's only interest by any means.

18. He, for example, was important in the promoting the use of bicycles. He
also was the man who invented the clickable multi-colored writing pens.
What do these interests all have in common? They all help to save energy and
increase productivity.

19. His mania for efficiency and saving time was driven by his personality,
but also by an accident that occurred when he was once working in a library in
his late teens. That memorable day a huge fire broke out in the building.

20. True to his character, Dewey made repeated trips back into the burning
building, trying to save as many books as he could. In the process, Dewey
inhaled a lot of smoke and within a week developed a deep, persistent cough.

21. He consulted a local doctor, who predicted that he would probably not
live much beyond two years. Yes TWO YEARS! And he was just a
teenager at the time.

22. This announcement had a profound effect on young Dewey and even
though he proved the doctor wrong and lived to be 80, from that day onward,
Dewey became preoccupied with the effective use of time. He was afraid he
might run out of it.

23. Even after he retired from library work, Dewey still looked for ways to
increase his efficiency and make better use of his time. When he was 72 for
example, he created a pencil with different leads on both ends. Switching from
one end to another was faster than switching from one pencil to another.

24. Another thing that Dewey saw as a total waste of time was the English
spelling system. He estimated that this "absurd spelling of English wasted
three years of the average schoolchild's life" and decided that English should
be reformed so that it was written as it sounded.

25. He began with his own name. Shortly after graduation from College in
1874, he dropped the "le" from his first name -Melville. Five years later, on
his 28th birthday, he legally changed the spelling of Dewey to "Dui." The
Melvil caught on, but strangely enough (or not) the new spelling of his last
name never did.

26. Another example of the way Dewey simplified the spelling system is
that he spelled coffee with a c o f and i

27. Other words that he spelled differently are teacher and possible. He
thought the standard English spelling system was stupid and it wasted our

28. On another note, why there are so many women librarians in the world
today and not many male librarians? This is usually attributed to Dewey's
influence and due, in large part, to his opening of the first professional library
school in the world... for women!

29. Melvil Dewey realized, back when he was in college, that in order for
his decimal system to become universally accepted, it must be taught. Who
better to teach it than him?

30. So when Columbia College hired him in 1883 to become its head
librarian, he soon persuaded the college to let him open a library school as

31. What Dewey neglected to tell them was that he intended to admit
WOMEN, which was a problem because, at the time, women were not
allowed to attend Columbia College.

32. The prejudice of the day was that serious college classes were only for
men, and many women at the time resented this practice and wanted to attend
college themselves, but were not able to do so.

33. When word spread that Deweys new library college was accepting
women, he was swamped with applications. The trustees at Columbia were
furious and refused to let him use any classrooms, but Dewey carried on

34. He had his students clean up an old, dusty room in the college chapel
across the street from the campus and smoothly told the students that the
reason for the lack of classroom space was due to the fact that he had not
planned for such a large first class.

35. Actually, there were only 20 students in his first class, but 17 of them
were women. This continued to be the trend as library work rapidly became
one of the few careers that an educated woman could successfully pursue in
that era.

36. Dewey copyrighted his Dewey Decimal system in 1876. This system has
proved to be enormously influential. He was also one of the founders of the
American Library Association.

37. Dewey died December 26, 1931 at the age of 80. His decimal system
is still alive and well in most American libraries, including right here at
Santiago High School.
38. And now it is time to learn even more about the Wonderful World of

Dewey by the Numbers

Here are some practical hints and suggestions for weaving the information included
in this article into your lesson plans:

1. Introduce the Dewey Decimal System by discussing its origin and the how
and whys of its invention rather than the mechanics. I like to begin by saying,
"Melvil Dewey (who was not related to Donald Duck) was sitting in church
one Sunday, when eureka! he came up with the idea for his Dewey Decimal
2. Write one or more of the quotes mentioned in this article on a blackboard (or
a whiteboard) so students can read them as they troop in for class. Begin your
introduction of the classification system with a discussion of one of these
quotes. For example, I like to write "the most resourceful librarian in the
world" and "nauseating slobberer" on the board. I find this wakes the kids up
a bit and leads to an interesting discussion about geniuses, and the pros and
cons of being one.
3. Use visual aids. Although there is plenty of material available on the Dewey
Decimal System, unfortunately there is a scarcity of items for sale that
portray Dewey the individual. Wayne Wiegand's Irrepressible Reformer(see
bibliography) includes some excellent photographs, and I recommend
photocopying and displaying some of them so that your students can see the
image of the man under discussion.
4. Keep copies of the Dewey Decimal System handy (both new and old) and
have students attempt to catalog a book or two so that they have an
understanding of how the system is set up (plus a sense of what the heck you
do when you are not teaching).
5. When explaining the mechanics of how Dewey set up his Decimal System,
give a mini-lecture on Dewey's efficiency mania (see the "Never Waste a
Minute" section for details). Pass out bookmarks with the 10 categories
defined, and then ask students to guess which categories certain books would
be shelved in. Start with simple examples, such as France (900s, Geography
and History) and progress to harder subjects, like Dancing (300s, Social
Sciences). Then throw in a few weird ones, such as cookbooks (600s, Applied
Sciences and Technology). This last example illustrates that no one, not even
Dewey, can create a perfectly logical system. (It also encourages students to
consult the catalog when in doubt.)
6. At some point, throw in a lesson about the importance of spelling when using
the catalog. Starting this lesson with the question "Who hates spelling?"
always elicits groans and comments. I also like to have some examples of
Dewey's simplified spelling program written on the board. I conclude this
lesson by saying that Dewey was largely unsuccessful and that correct
spelling is still important in order to successfully locate the books you are
looking for.
7. Teach the Dewey way. If students are having a particularly apathetic day, try
imitating Dewey's teaching style. It isn't as hard as it seems. When they are
seated, rush in and begin pacing all around their tables. Talk just as fast as
you can (have one or more students try and count the number of words) and
do a lot of gesturing. You can say anything you want but I tend to use this
time to thrown in the line, "Have you ever noticed that there are more women
librarians than men?" and then stop to ask why. After some very interesting
responses, I resume my animated style and do some explaining of Dewey's
admittance of women into his library school, a very forward-thinking and
daring thing to do in his day (and then I get back to explaining the Decimal
8. If you give a quiz at the end of teaching the Dewey Decimal System, include
a bonus question about Melvil Dewey. You can reward students with extra
points, stickers, etc. I like to ask, "How do you spell the name of the man
who invented the Decimal System used in most libraries today?" Web Sites

Melvil DeweyWho2, Famous People Web Site

This site contains vital statistics as well as four good links to more information
about Dewey.

Dewey Decimal Classification Home Page

The official Dewey Decimal Classification site includes a "Melvil Dewey

Biography" section as well as all sorts of information about the DDC.

Dewey, Development, and Diversification

This student site contains a very interesting paper about Dewey and his influence
on the development of college research libraries, especially the library at Columbia