Classism, Sexual Misconduct, Racism…The Life of Melvil Dewey

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Anna Gooding-Call

Staff Writer

Anna Gooding-Call is a librarian and writer originally from rural central New York. She got her BA in the city that inspired "The Twilight Zone" and confirms that the hitchhikers really are weird there. Today, she lives in Massachusetts with her wife and two cats.

Good Internet, readers of things. Today I come before you with the life of Melvil Dewey, a man who got #metooed before Twitter was a sparkle in Satan’s eye. He invented the public library as we know it. He started the world’s first library school. Melvil Dewey had gumption, impact, and vision.

And Melvil Dewey was a dick.

Melvil Dewey public domainDewey The Oppressionist

Dewey’s original vision for libraries was just a titch dystopian. He felt that everybody had a place. Some people were great men (like him) and deserved a high place. Others were not great men, and they deserved a different category of place entirely. That was why they needed to be educated in good, Protestant morality. Then, they would understand that Dewey and people like him were elevated men, just like Jesus was an elevated man. Of a certain class, if you will. The average factory worker needed to stop making demands for fair wages and other worthless mortal crap like that.

Dewey believed that libraries should only stock “quality” literature. This was literature that taught people how to be good and obedient Christians. The Bible was a good example. His recommended reading for the simple folk included morality tales and intellectually gentle personal guidance. Racy, entertainment-variety, or humorous novels would not “improve” people and should therefore not be included in library collections. Raciness would make people sexual. Entertainment might poke fun at authority. Worse still, politically subversive material might make people want something better out of life than a 12-hour shift in a coal mine every day.

The good news about Dewey’s horrifying classism is that it didn’t really make it through academia. Once trained librarians cycled out of his Albany-based School of Library Economy, they went right ahead and started stocking fiction. Soon, they ran into controversy—the amazing Tessa Kelso became famous for resisting censorship—and eventually they started collecting the kind of anarchist anti-Jesus literature that corrupts modern children, such as Harry Potter.

Sexual Assault Literally For Days

It is not true that Dewey demanded the bust sizes of the female applicants to his library school. However, he did insist upon seeing photos. He would justify this by saying, loudly and often, that “you cannot polish a pumpkin.”

Apparently he knew from pumpkins.

Common Knowledge

Dewey had positioned himself as a great advocate of women by letting them into library school. He’d famously staked his career on that. Nevertheless, everyone knew that you didn’t want to get too close, because he’d hug you. If you were a particularly attractive lady, he’d hug you for a long, long time. If that sounds creepy to you, then know that it sounded just as creepy to the librarians of the 1880s.

Dewey’s treatment of women went way beyond the odd awkward embrace. In fact, his classic move was to get a woman into his car and then take off with her. He once abducted up-and-coming librarian Adelaide Hasse for a whole weekend of harassment. Afterward, Hasse couldn’t get away from him fast enough. Nevertheless, she later had to endure cringeworthy follow-up mail. In The New Woman as Librarian: The Career of Adelaide Hasse, author Clare Beck describes how Hasse, instead of speaking up, gritted her teeth and thought of her career.

All Those Impure Women Made Him Do It

Dewey liked to tell his friends that “pure” women would understand that his behavior was all in good fun. Clearly, women just wanted him so badly that they imagined that his bizarre behavior was sexual in nature. Also, Dewey clearly understood that other people might find his behavior objectionable. That said, he didn’t have to look far to find allies, because he was a legitimately famous dude. His fiery (and sometimes misfirey) personality was as dreaded by New York State administrators as it was entertaining to newspapers and librarians. Plus, he’d basically hand-raised a generation of librarians. He was an institution.

That state of affairs was to change in 1905. On a post-conference VIP cruise to Alaska, Dewey sexually assaulted at least four librarians. That got him drummed out of the American Library Association almost on the spot. It’s hard to overstate what a big deal this was. Dewey had helped to establish the ALA in 1876. Now he’d been publicly blacklisted for life. The secret was out: Dewey was a pervert!

Dewey Continues To Be Vile

Then again, everyone had already known that. Dewey’s behavior was just common knowledge. It didn’t even really get him ousted from libraries because the New York Public Library Association continued to let him host NYLA meetings at his social club. In 1924—yep! Nineteen years later!—the aforementioned Tessa Kelso made a good attempt at ending that practice. Her witness, a victim of Dewey’s, backed out of testifying at the last minute. That sounds worse than it actually is in context. The NYLA executive board was male-dominated and included Dewey’s friends, but it was still ready to listen to a serious allegation against him. In that age, the sheer fact that they wanted to take her seriously was a big deal.

In 1930, Dewey finally paid money for his sins. Over $2,000 went to his stenographer over long-term sexual assault allegations. He’d also been accused of harassing his daughter-in-law and a couple of servants over the course of his life. That made nine highly likely cases of sexual assault, although considering his reputation and the indeterminate number of ladies he creepy-hugged, the actual number was probably way higher.

It’s worth mentioning that Dewey’s humiliation didn’t end sexual harassment as an issue in libraries. Library staff still put up with nonsense from patrons, management, and professional influencers all the time. If you’re not familiar with the Team Harpy drama, go read about it. I’ll wait.

No Jews At Dewey’s Social Club

Melvil Dewey was a bit of a control freak. At any given time, he had three or four projects going, all of which he had to manage personally. This, however, was not sufficient. Dewey needed to go where everybody knew Dewey’s name even harder than they did at his day job(s).

That’s why he started the Lake Placid Club in 1895. Ego wasn’t the only reason, of course—he also wanted to relax, connect to nature, and avoid contact with immigrants, people of color, and Jews. The club was specifically designed to keep out minorities right down to the founding principles. It didn’t even hire minority servants. Dewey actually bought the land surrounding the club’s property just so that Jewish families couldn’t settle in proximity to his white supremacist haven.

Even the club’s other members thought this was a little much. (Granted, they still joined.) When a club member asked to sign up his Jewish friends, Dewey meekly admitted he didn’t want to break the rules. If you guessed that Dewey and his wife Annie had themselves personally written those rules, then find a bell, you ringer, because that’s exactly what had happened. That was a pattern with him: he didn’t like to say no to people outright, so he wrapped his racism up in an apologetic charisma blanket.

The Secret Gets Out

That same apologetic charisma blanket was starting to wear a little thin in the early 1900s. In 1903, it finally broke at the New York Library Association’s annual Library Week. This swanky party happened every year at the Lake Placid Club. However, 1903 was special. That year, Dewey hadn’t hidden the club’s rule book.

This being a librarian shindig, someone found the thing on a side table and decided to read it. That person turned out to be a friend of Henry Leipziger, a Jewish member of NYLA’s circulation committee. Together, they read the pamphlet and discovered the language forbidding racial and ethnic minorities, but especially and specifically Jews. Coincidentally, Leipziger had been trying to become a member of the Lake Placid Club for years. Now he knew why his application was on permanent hold. That’s right: Dewey hadn’t even told him about the no-Jews rule.

Leipziger did the opposite of shutting up about Dewey’s racist social club. Dewey was then the state librarian of New York, a publicly funded position. New York City was a major center of Jewish culture, and Leipziger felt that Jewish tax dollars were going to waste on an unapologetic anti-Semite. He hired lawyer Louis Marshall, who lodged a petition with the Board of Regents to get Dewey fired in 1905. The press went crazy.

Dewey Loses

In the same year that he got booted from his own library organization, Melvil Dewey scrambled to prove that he wasn’t a racist. He even trotted out some Jewish publishing industry contacts. This didn’t convince either his bosses or the public, but after all, he was an institution unto himself. Who could replace the great Dewey? After a brutal review, he kept his job by the skin of his teeth.

You’d think Dewey would have learned from this traumatic experience. Nope! He immediately continued to say racist things about Jews at his club, which Jews still were not allowed to join. (Because, you know, he actually was a racist. Shock, right?) Outrage mounted fast and it became clear that Dewey couldn’t stay on at his job. He left state employ for good later in 1905.

It’s worthwhile to note that nobody got upset about Dewey denying entry to Black, Asian, Hispanic, or Native American people. These weren’t woke times. Dewey managed to be so much less woke than the unwoke people around him that he broke the very system that was designed to let him be a baseline jerk in the first place.

What Can We Take From This?

How can we feel about Dewey? He risked his career for female librarians, then destroyed it by harassing female librarians. He empowered the public, yet he clearly cared about reinforcing social hierarchy.

I take two things from this man’s life. The first is that the institutions that we call libraries today differ tremendously from Melvil Dewey’s vision. He kicked that ball down the hill, but where it went wasn’t much under his control in the end. The ALA sometimes trots him out as a mascot, but he’s mostly symbolic. Libraries certainly don’t try to secure the man’s intentions.

The second is that calling out racists and sexists can work. Even in a relatively conservative time, Dewey did not get away scot-free with being an asshole. Whenever people revealed his bad behavior, he lost something. Whether that was directorship of his own library school or just the belief that his buddies would ignore assault allegations, he lost again and again.

Courage can deprive unworthy people of their legacy. Let’s take the story of Dewey and identify its real heroes: Tessa Kelso, Henry Leipziger, Adelaide Hasse, and the tens of thousands of dedicated professionals who have worked to arc public libraries toward justice.