Each year, the American Library Association awards the Melvil Dewey Medal to a recipient who has demonstrated “creative leadership of a high order” in such fields as classification and cataloging, library management and library training. It is the profession’s top honor, named after the man who is widely regarded as the father of modern librarianship. But the council of the ALA has now voted to strip Dewey’s name from the award, citing his history of racism, anti-Semitism and sexual harassment.
As Andrew Albanese reports for Publisher’s Weekly, the council approved the measure after a damning resolution was successfully advanced during the 2019 ALA Annual Conference, which ran from June 20-25 in Washington, D.C. The resolution called for the award to be divorced from Dewey’s name, arguing that the behavior he demonstrated for “decades” does not represent the “stated fundamental values of ALA in equity, diversity, and inclusion.”
More specifically, the resolution pointed to the fact that Dewey “did not permit Jewish people, African Americans, or other minorities admittance to the resort owned by Dewey and his wife.” Dewey, the resolution adds, “made numerous inappropriate physical advances toward women he worked with and wielded professional power over.” These allegations aren’t only now surfacing. In his own time, Dewey’s discriminatory and predatory actions landed him in trouble, pushing him to the fringes of a profession that he helped pioneer.
In 1876, Dewey published Classification and Subject Index for Cataloguing and Arranging the Books and Pamphlets of a Library, in which he laid out the first modern organizational system for libraries. Today, that system is known as the Dewey Decimal Classification, and it continues to be used in libraries around the world. Dewey was also one of the founders of the ALA, the director of the New York State Library, and the founder of the School of Library Economy at Columbia College, the first librarian training institution in the United States.
But Dewey’s colleagues became unsettled by his behavior. Minorities were patently forbidden entry to the Lake Placid Club, the New York resort that Dewey owned and operated with his wife; as Anne Ford wrote in the American Libraries Magazine last year, promotional material for the club stipulated that “no Jews or consumptives [were] allowed.” Dewey was ultimately forced to resign from his position as New York State Librarian by those who objected to his discriminatory policies. And then there was the matter of his behavior towards women.
Writing in American Libraries in 2014, Joshua Kendall describes Dewey as a “serial hugger and kisser.” Kendall adds that “eyewitnesses” claimed Dewey’s personal assistants, Florence Woodworth and May Seymour, were repeatedly subjected to his “squeezes.” Adelaide Hasse, head of the Public Documents Division at the New York Public Library, reportedly told her contemporaries that Dewey had been uncomfortably flirtatious. According to Ford, Dewey’s own daughter-in-law was so unsettled by his behavior toward her that she and her husband—Dewey’s son—decided to move out of the family home.
Things came to a head in 1905, during an ALA-sponsored trip to Alaska. Dewey made physical advances on four female ALA members, who reported him to the association. He was subsequently forced out of active membership.
Dewey was not particularly apologetic about his actions. “I have been very unconventional … as men [are] always who frankly show and speak of their liking for women,” he once wrote. And the allegations against him did not stop once he had been edged out of the ALA. In the late 1920s, Dewey was sued by his former stenographer, who said that he had kissed and touched her in public. He settled out of court, paying $2,147.
In the years after Dewey’s death, these unsavory elements of his biography tended to be glossed over, as he was shored up as a pillar of the library field. But in 1996, Wayne Wiegand published Irrepressible Reformer: A Biography of Melvil Dewey, which took a frank look at both his genius and his misdeeds.
The ALA’s decision to rename the Melvil Dewey Medal—the award’s new title has not yet been announced—marks the second time in recent months that the association has stripped the name of a controversial figure from an award. Last year, the ALA announced that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name would be removed from a prestigious children’s literature award because her works “reflect dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color.”
Ian Anstice, the editor of Public Libraries News, tells Alison Flood of the Guardian that revelations about Dewey present modern librarians with “some difficulties,” given that they continue to rely on the system that bears his name.
“It would be difficult to scrap [that system] and odd to change its name,” Anstice said. “[B]ut such things as simply renaming an award absolutely should be done. Dewey is in the past now and should not be someone that is unquestionably looked up to. His behaviour should be questioned and responded to appropriately, like we would with anyone else.”