Eight One Seven | Newberry

Eight One Seven

Sunday will be the 166th birthday of Melvil Dewey, most famous for his library classifications (the Dewey Decimal System: YOU remember) but also the originator of the standard library catalog card as we know it, one of the brains behind the Winter Olympics, and one of the all-time great square pegs in a round hole. He excelled not only in coming up with new ideas but also in making new enemies. He did make friends as well, but most of them got tired of sticking up for him after a while. (AND there were the stories about his private life: nothing innovative about that, same old stories over and over. And over and over. People finally stopped speaking to him at meetings of the American Library Association, which he helped found.) Altogether, one of the difficult giants of history.

His name should give you some idea: he started as Melville Dewey, decided as a teenager that spelling was a tedious thing in English, and changed it to Melvil Dui. He eventually settled on Melvil Dewey, because he was able to accept compromise.

Take his decimal system, which, as mentioned, I am sure you recall from grade school. In any case, WE had it drummed into our heads every week during Library Hour. I was grateful to learn that I could find cartoon books 741.5, humor in 817, and other things of use to a future blogger. I have even heard of a Book Fair somewhere out there which classifies all its books according to Dewey, because the old library shelves they use are labeled that way. Those of you who just thought, “Gee, that would make things easy!” lose ten points and must return to Go. We’d have to teach the theory of decimals, and explaining that 741.5 comes after 741.45 would take up all my spare time.

Anyway, the compromise I was thinking of was in the area of Biography. Biographies, in the Dewey system, are to be found under 920. Unless they aren’t.

See, he ALSO had numbers in each category for biography. Biographies of painters, for example, went into 759, since the 750s were meant for books about paintings. Biographies of athletes went into Sports, but, if the librarian wanted, these could go into Biography instead. OR librarians could use the Biography classification for lives of people they weren’t sure how to place (was George Washington, say, History, Military History, or Political Science?)

This, through no particular coincidence, is how we do it at the Book Fair. Albert Einstein goes into Science, but what about Albert Schweitzer? Religion? Health and Medicine? Music? Hey, what about Biography?

It’s one of those things I try to point out to helpful customers in July. They’ll bring me a biography of John Muir and tell me, “I found this in Nature!”

“Good,” I replay. “I was hoping people would find it there.”

“But it’s a biography!” they point out, sometimes opening the book to the title page to show me. On Thursday, I will sometimes tell the story of Melvil Dewey, but by Saturday afternoon, I am tired enough simply to thank them, take the book, and sneak it back to Nature while they’re busy rummaging through Foreign Language for books in English.

Melvil Dewey died of a stroke in 1931, the day after Christmas and sixteen days after his eightieth birthday, just missing the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Twenty years later, he was one of the first people elected to the American Library Association’s Hall of Fame (presumably the employees who complained about his roaming hands had passed on.)

As for where his biography will be found in July, happy hunting. (If you find it in Nature, it’s because a customer picked it up and then set it down somewhere else. Don’t blame me or Dewey.)

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