From the Library: Outing the Father of Librarianship


This week marks the first From the Bitch Library post that examines the history of female librarianship as well as the relationship between feminism and libraries.

It's no secret that most librarians are women (according to 2002 US Statistical Abstract figures, 82% of librarians in the US are women). But not everyone knows the story behind female librarianship in the states. Today we'll take a look at Melvil Dewey, who is accredited with having made library science such a popular career for women.

Melvil Dewey, creator of the Dewey Decimal System (as well as co-founder of the American Library Journal and the American Library Association), is often praised for having created a field of jobs for women in the US. In 1883, Dewey was hired as the head librarian at Columbia College (which later turned into Columbia University), and he soon convinced the trustees to let him open a library school. At the time, Columbia College only allowed women into a special women's college, so Dewey's plans to invite women to join the library school were controversial. His first class was comprised of 20 people, 17 of whom were women. While many have focused on Dewey's success in educating and opening up jobs for women, attention is rarely paid to why he felt women would make great librarians. Spoiler alert: he held some pretty sexist beliefs.


Image: Melvil Dewey

In The Feminization of Libraranship, Tawny Sverdlin asks whether Dewey's opening up the library school for women was actually the achievement that it seems:

The opportunity for women to enter library school at Columbia College...proved to be a double-edged sword in terms of women's opportunity for advancement. Melvil Dewey championed women as librarians and library school educators but placed caps on their achievement in terms of gender straight away. According to Dewey's blatant double standard, women had to demonstrate truly remarkable ability or be relegated to perpetual underling status.

Notably, many students in the first class at Columbia dropped out because of his strict and eccentric teaching style. Keeping in mind that Dewey was known to grope and try to kiss female colleagues, you have to wonder why so many of his initial students quit. Dewey's "scandalous behavior" and "his persistent inability to control himself around women" was cited in a biography called Irrepressible reformer: a biography of Melvil Dewey.
Furthermore, a major reason Dewey wanted women to enter the field was because he felt women were ideal for the repetitiveness of library work and "didn't cause trouble."

Dewey frequently came into conflict with colleagues and officials. Due to blatant racism, anti-Semitism, and sexual misconduct, he was forced to resigned from several prominent positions. A group of Library school alumnae and women from the American Library Association threatened to bring a vote of censure against Dewey because he had sexually harassed women at ALA conferences. In 1906, they kicked him out of active ALA participation. Those are the kind of librarians that should go down in history, right?

While he did help to open up a new field for women, Melvil Dewey does not deserve credit as any kind of advocate for women's rights or professional advancement. And his contributions to the profession of librarianship in no way cancel out his sleaziness and sexism.

Countless librarians have made remarkable gains for women while promoting free access to information. I'll be featuring some of the women who have made contributions to social justice through their work in libraries in upcoming posts, so keep reading!

Next week's From the Bitch Library will feature another one of our zine reviews!

by Ashley McAllister
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16 Comments Have Been Posted

One more reason to prefer Library of Congress shelving system

WOW! I had no idea that Mr. Dewey was such a douche! And yeah, hells yes to the ALA women that kicked him out. Thanks for the history lesson, from a proud daughter of a librarian.

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Librarianship is well beyond Melvil Dewey

I won't argue with your description of Dewey, as I have no clue what he was like as a person. But as a (straight) man in a female-dominated profession, I have to say the female dominance is a lot of why I'm here. Being female-dominated, it has to be one of the most nurturing and collaborative professions out there. I love this career, at least partly because of the people whom it has attracted. I know quite a few bright, articulate, and principled people, and I'm lucky to call many of them friends and colleagues.

The person with the greatest impact on my career was a remarkable woman, for whom I edited a festschrift in her honor (see <a href=""></a>) and I have recently begun to mentor a group of women and one man in a feeble attempt to pass on what she did for me. I'm well known in librarianship, and now I'm hoping to turn that toward helping women in library technology get ahead. Happily, I've helped two of my mentees get jobs they desired in the last six months. Mind you, they got the jobs based on talent and experience, but a little extra push can't hurt.

Meanwhile, I have two 17-year-old daughters who read <i>Bitch</i> religiously and whom I will be launching out into the world soon, via college. They are strong, and principled, and articulate, and frighteningly intelligent. All of the things that many women are known for, including my wife.

So although Dewey may have been sexist and, well, let's face it -- probably a <i>douche</i> -- that by no means all librarians are. Overall I've found both my male and female colleagues to be the best of people. I mean, <a href="">some of my best friends are feminist</a>.

Librarian sounds like an interesting job,

but admittedly, reading this made me think about the Potterville Mary in It's a Wonderful Life.

Ah, the librarian spinster stereotype...

We'll be looking more at that stereotype in upcoming posts!

@Roy - I certainly don't

@Roy - I certainly don't think that Dewey is representative of librarians as a whole and I didn't make any negative claims about any other librarians or about librarianship in general. I'm a librarian myself, after all!

Yeah, he also insisted that

Yeah, he also insisted that home economics wasn't a science, despite the arguments of early home economists who were scientists. Stupid Dewey.

Interesting Essay

Interesting essay. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

One small thing, though. Dewey is "credited" with opening the field of librarianship to women. If he were "accredited" that would mean he met some set of standards to earn the credit.

nice essay and well said

Dewey is one of the most confusing people in library history. You can see his prejudices and his Eurocentrism in the Dewey system. As my daughter would say," He was an f***tard."

Dewey, and Gee Whiz!

Folks there is hardly anybody in libraryland who does not already know all of the above. There is a solid stream of scholarly research on the role of women in librarianship going back to the 1960s. Just a little bit of homework on the part of your "reporter" would have discovered that this is an oft-plowed field. Yeh, Dewey was a jerk in a lot of ways, but a genius in others. The fact that he was a sexist swine (and darn few men were not at that stage of the game) and screaming anti-semite does not negate the usefulness of his classification system or the other tools he dreamed up for libraryland.

Re: Dewey, and Gee Whiz!


Where in this post do you see Ashley negating the usefulness of the Dewey Decimal System? Why are you assuming that the audience for this blog is made up solely of citizens of libraryland? This blog is read by a wide array of people, and many of us weren't aware of this history precisely because we haven't studied librarianship. In fact, the uniting thread among most of us is that we don't like sexist swine, which makes Dewey's behavior a more than appropriate topic for discussion here. Please don't defend his sexism (or accuse one of our bloggers as doing a poor job or "screaming anti-semite," as if people shouldn't be called out on that behavior) in this space.

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Collaborative and nurturing?

Sorry, Roy, have been an admirer for many years but that "female-dominated = nurturing and collaborative" is pretty cheesy. Not buying it.

Too true. A fascinating

Too true. A fascinating stereotypifictation.

melvil dewy

i think he is amazing he has invented somthing for the librains and i think that he is smart he made a system called the dewey decimal system

One more vote for LC

Actually, Charlie, I would argue (though Ashley does not) that the fact that Dewey was a sexist swine and anti-semite and Eurocentrist does have a strong impact on the usefulness of his classification system. The ways that we choose to classify our information says a lot about what and who we value as a culture. For example, the fact that Dewey bundled major world religions (that happened not to be Judeo-Christian) in with mythology says a lot about his world view (and, yes, the reigning world view of the time). It's not hard to imagine the bad taste, say, a Hindu patron might get when they are looking for religious texts in the library and find it shelved alongside Bulfinch's Mythology. In these more enlightened times, we know better. At best, Dewey's an inaccurate classification, and therefore no longer useful. And though the decimal system is ingenious, it's unfortunately difficult to update, and it's definitely past its prime. I'm not saying old Melvil didn't have some good ideas, or that the work he did to advance libraries wasn't important--but it's actually very important that librarians, feminists, and library users all take a critical look at his contributions. We can't keep using century-old tools to address modern needs. That's exactly why people think we're a dusty profession.

Ashley, ooh! As long as you're profiling people in libraries: <a href="">Sanford Berman</a>! Not a woman, but definitely a feminist! Also: <a href="">Suzanne Briet</a>! Are you going to do one on her? Can't wait to read what's next.

Jessbrarian- Thanks for

Jessbrarian- Thanks for bringing that up! The classification system that Dewey invented is indeed ethnocentric and certainly outdated.

Also, thank you for the librarian suggestions! I have quite a long list of fabulous librarians to profile, and I will certainly add these two to it.


Yesss! I am so happy to see this will be an ongoing series. I get so tired of the librarian stereotype in pop culture, and highlighting all the badass librarians out there is the best thing I can think of. I remember reading about Dewey early on in library school and being so horrified that the whole profession was basically set up as another "home" women could tend to, while the male boards of directors actually ran things. My favorite badass librarian from history is one of the first female directors of the LA Public Library, who raged against the board, and grew one of the greatest public library systems there is today. Good luck with with this series!!

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