Background Research Notes: CODE REFORM (ATTEMPTS) HISTORY

Melvil Dewey

“The second great obstacle is our absurd spelling, which scholars agree is the worst on the planet. In trying to learn this, two or three years more are worse than wasted. A few years ago it required some hardihood for an educated man to declare himself in favor of simplified spelling, but since the founding of the Spelling Reform Association in 1876 every prominent student of English living, both American and foreign, has conceded that scholarship, as well as common sense, requires the change which is quietly but steadily going forward.” –Melvil Dewey


In 1876 Dewey was involved in the foundation of the Spelling Reform Association of which he was Secretary for almost all his life. He also served on the Simplified Spelling Board. Dewey believed that there were two elements that obstructed elementary education. One being the American system of weights and measures and the other one being complicated spelling.

About the English language Dewey writes:
"Speling Skolars agree that we hav the most unsyentifik, unskolarli, illojikal & wasteful speling ani languaj ever ataind."

Dewey Declassified
Bob Sawatzki
Dewey Decimal System

Irrepressible Reformer: A Biography of Melvil Dewey by Wayne A. Wiegand, published 1996 by the American Library Association, 404 pages, ISBN: 0-8389-0680-X.
WCL Collection: 92 Dewey

In Chapter 1, “Child of the Burned Over District,” Wiegand cuts right to the heart of Dewey’s personality:

People took their politics and their religion very seriously in Jefferson County. Oftentimes the two became inseparable as wave after wave of evangelism and reform swept this northwestern edge of the state of New York between 1800 and 1850, leading historian Whitney Cross to label it the “Burned Over District” a century later. This region witnessed the greatest revivals of Charles Grandison Finney and gave birth to Mormonism and Millerism. It had welcomed and fostered the growth of the Shakers, the Oneida perfectionists and Fourierists; it harbored abolitionists, temperance advocates, and educational reformers. It even spawned a mid-century women’s rights movement. Over time causes changed, but intensity did not.

Dewey grew up in this atmosphere of moral fervor among Baptists with “a passionate desire to reform the world.” But instead of religion, Dewey chose social reform through free public education as his cause. His first library employment was as a student at Amherst College. On his 21st birthday, Dewey wrote in his notebook:

The free school and the free library I conceive to be the great engines. I feel thankful for the strong interest in the work that has come to me during the last year…My World Work—Free Schools & Free Libraries for every soul.

Only a few months later, Dewey came up with the single idea for which he is now most famous:

Cutter, Harris, Shurtleff, Jewett, and Schwartz-all had developed firm ideas about classification schemes or cataloging practices which Dewey thought showed strengths and weaknesses. But classification schemes especially intrigued him, and their weaknesses especially troubled him. “For months I dreamed night and day that there must be somewhere a satisfactory solution.” Then, “one Sunday during a long sermon by Pres. Stearns,” he recalled fifty years later, “the solution flasht over me so that I jumpt in my seat and came very near shouting ‘Eureka!’ Use decimals to number a classification of all human knowledge in print.” Dewey’s approach was characteristic. Adopt from existing practice only those features that promised to make the new system easy to use, and centralize the system to avoid duplication of effort. At this point the scheme he conceived joined strong points from Cutter, Harris, and Shurtleff. Dewey’s contribution to classification was joining them together, not creating anything new.

In 1876, Dewey moved to Boston and went into business for the manufacture and sale of supplies for schools and libraries. At the same time, Dewey negotiated with the editors of Publisher’s Weekly to begin a new publication called Library Journal, with Dewey as its editor.

1876 was also the year of the American Centennial Celebration, held in Philadelphia. Dewey helped organize a conference held there that would establish the American Library Association. But getting the established leaders of the library community to respect this upstart reformer was not easily done:

William F. Poole, director of the Chicago Public Library, told Justin Winsor, director of the Boston Public Library, about a conversation Librarian of Congress A. R. Spofford had with Julius Seelye, who called Dewey “a tremendous talker and a little of an old maid.”

This book is chock-full of such little nuggets of personal observation by Dewey’s contemporaries dug up by the author and zealously footnoted. Here’s a good one from Agusta Leypoldt, wife of Publisher’s Weekly editor Frederick Leypoldt:

I never believed in the Library Journal, because I knew it would not pay and I though Dewey about as miserable a specimen of gabbling idiot as I had ever beheld.

R.G. Dun & Company, which compiled credit reports on American businesses, described Dewey in 1881 as:

“a sanguine well-meaning man, full of little schemes for economizing the time and labor of librarians and literary men” who had “no capacity for bus. affairs and no means worth mentioning.”

But Dewey wasn’t just a fanatic about libraries. He also was a true believer in the metric system and spelling reform. His business card listed himself as the Secretary of three different organizations: American Library Association, American Metric Bureau, and the Spelling Reform Association, a group that advocated abandoning traditional English spellings for a strictly phonetic-based system. Dewey was so committed to spelling reform that on his 28th birthday he officially changed his last name to Dui. In the years between 1876 and 1883:

Dui had started and lost one business, and started another like it within weeks. He developed credibility for his reform zeal, then lost it, then began to rebuild it all over again. Throughout he retained his boundless energy, intense commitment, self-righteous arrogance, and irrepressible reform spirit. He made many friends and enemies. Most who came in contact with him, however—whether superior, peer, or subordinate—quickly recognized him as a forceful personality not easily swayed from goals he had set for himself as a child of the Burned-Over District.

In 1883 Melvil Dewey accepted a position as Librarian-In-Chief at Columbia College in New York City. (Spelling Reform was not recognized at Columbia, so that was the end of “Dui”) The five and half years he spent there are emblematic of his whole life. Presented with a brand new college library, Dewey went wild with radical ideas:

Dewey took risks he thought promised high gain for low cost; he hired seven women on a campus described in 1883 as “almost as hermetically sealed to women as is a monastery.” Six were dubbed “the Wellesley Half Dozen” because of former connections to that institution. There they had been relatively free to define their own standards of success, to experience their own concept of power, to be aggressive, strong, and direct.

But far worse than allowing women to work on a college campus, Dewey dreamed of starting a formal library school for them. Dewey was denied permission to use Columbia classrooms. Undeterred, Dewey set up a “bootleg operation,” holding classes in an unused storeroom above the chapel across the street from the library (which was not technically a College classroom.) The School of Library Economy lasted until1887, when Dewey was well on his way out of a job at Columbia. Nicholas Murray Butler later observed that Dewey “went so far and so fast…he sawed off the limb upon which he was sitting.”