Melvil Dewey, Open Access Hero (and Pig)

Melvil Dewey’s not the most heroic of names, but what he did and why he did it make the legendary librarian a true champion of free speech and shareable information.

Inventor of the eponymous Dewey Decimel System, Dewey’s road to fame began during his gig as librarian at his alma mater, Amherst College, in 1876, when the educator was 25-years-old. Frustrated by prevailing modes of organization — primarily book acquisition date and height, accessed solely by trained professionals and intellectual bigwigs — Dewey disrupted the status quo by creating a revolutionary system that not only categorized books by subject and sub-subject, making locating a book a breeze, but that also opened access for millions of readers. No longer were in-the-know insiders the only ones who could find a book. Now everyone who knew the numbers 1-10 could look up a book’s code and track it down in the stacks.

Originally isolated only to Amherst, Dewey’s system spread to other universities, public libraries and, eventually, world, and today it remains the globe’s prevailing method for organizing books, known far and wide not as the Dewey Decimel System, but as the Universal Decimal Classification. While that is indeed an accurate name, capturing the system’s global reach as well as its purpose —  openness —  it seemed to me that the name Dewey deserves commemoration, because without him, accessing knowledge and text would still be highly restricted.

Note I used the word “seemed,” because I learned while researching this piece that Dewey was also quite the male pig: in addition to making unwanted sexual advances on at least four women, he allegedly asked female librarians their bust size during interviews, an allegation he denied, though he did readily admit to asking them for headshots before hiring them, because, in his words, “You cannot polish a pumpkin.” Gross.

I guess Colin Jost really was right when he said on SNL‘s most recent Weekend Update, “Everyone you’ve ever heard of is a sex monster.”

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