The American Library Association passed a commendable but long overdue resolution at its convention in Washington, D.C. last week by voting to remove Melvil Dewey’s name from its most prestigious professional award, the Melvil Dewey Medal. It is given to a recipient who has demonstrated “creative leadership of a high order” in fields ranging from library management to library training.
The ALA based its decision on Dewey’s execrable record as an antisemite, racist and sexual predator.
Dewey, the father of modern librarianship and one of the ALA’s founders, devised the Dewey decimal system in 1876 with the publication of his seminal book, A Classification and Subject Index for Cataloguing and Arranging Books and Pamphlets in a Library. The system is still used by many libraries in the world today.
According to the resolution, Dewey banned Jews, African Americans and other minorities from the Lake Placid Club, a resort he owned on the shores of Mirror Lake in upstate New York. By all accounts, it was the first winter resort in the United States. In addition, he made “numerous inappropriate physical advances” toward women with whom he worked.
“The behavior demonstrated for decades by Dewey does not represent the stated fundamental values of ALA in equity, diversity and inclusion,” the resolution concluded.
Considering that Dewey’s vile views and gross misconduct have never been a secret, it’s puzzling that the ALA waited so long to disassociate itself from him.
In 1906, when he was the director of the New York State Library, he was forced to resign in disgrace following the disclosure that his resort had excluded Jews. Some years later, the head librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library, Tessa Kelso, disclosed that “for many years women librarians have been the special prey of Mr. Dewey in a series of outrages against decency.”
The editor of Public Libraries News, Ian Anstice, suggests that the ALA had no alternative but to deal harshly with Dewey.
Acknowledging that revelations about his shady character had caused librarians “some difficulties,” he said, “It would be difficult to scrap (the Dewey decimal system) and odd to change its name, but 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 behavior should be questioned and responded to appropriately, like we would with anyone else.”
In line with Anstice’s sensible observations, the ALA has rid itself of an embarrassing blemish.