Thursday, January 5, 2017

This Day in Library History (Dewey Opens World’s First Library School at Columbia)

Jan. 5, 1887Having already created a classification system that imposed order on book collections, Melvil Dewey cemented his status as the "Father of Modern Librarianship" by opening a “School of Library Economy.” At the same time, the librarian of Columbia College (now Columbia University) bolstered his maverick reputation by admitting 17 women in that first class of 20, without full authorization from the school’s hidebound board of trustees.

Twenty students might not seem much, but it was twice the size expected, making it necessary for Dewey to find other quarters for them. Actually, it gave him the opportunity to do some creative (if, by his lights, entirely rational) thinking.

At that time, Columbia was opposing even the slightest attempt at co-education. Dewey—who saw a major part of his job as teaching—had been advised that he could not use any of the school’s classrooms to instruct women. Instead, he used a janitor to clear out an unused storeroom above a chapel for that purpose.

The trustees were beside themselves about what to do with this innovative, rule-breaking thinker. One of the founders of the American Library Association (ALA) in 1876, Dewey had gone on to serve as its secretary and president. Hired as Columbia’s librarian seven years later, he had transformed a randomly collection of books into one centrally organized, easy-to-use one. Not coincidentally, circulation had increased 500%.

Could it have been possible for Dewey to have escaped running afoul of the trustees for flouting the ban on women? Not likely, given his personality and track record. He was great at standardizing everything but not so great at promoting his ideas. 

Rather than persuade opponents—or, at least, neutralize them by codding them—he seemed to go out of his way to alienate those who couldn’t accept ideas he regarded as logical and self-evident. Nor did it help any that he fined faculty members with overdue books. 

A year after establishing his school, with his support undercut, Dewey moved on, accepting an offer from the Regents of the University of the State of New York to become their secretary and librarian. He took with him the library school, which became known as the New York State Library School (NYSLS).  

Dewey continued to run afoul of people afterwards, though--being forced out as state librarian, for instance, because of practices excluding Jews from a social club he and his wife had established, and from the ALA because of his threats to move the library school from Albany and his sexual harassment of several ALA women. 

Dewey died in 1931, five years after the NYSLS had merged with the Library School of the New York Public Library and rejoined Columbia. 

In 1990, Columbia announced that it would phase out the library school, following a report commissioned by the university’s provost that criticized its “lack of a research agenda, and a lack of a base of professional knowledge." One suspects that Dewey would not have been surprised by the institution’s lack of support.

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