by Constance Crompton
While in Middlemarch, published serially in 1871 and 1872, dear Dorothea suffered great “annoyance at being twitted with her ignorance of political economy, that never-explained science which was thrust as an extinguisher over all her lights” (Eliot 42) there were many other economies being developed in the 1870s which would rely on women as employees and proselytizers. I will leave domestic economy to the side for the nonce — it’s the economy of knowledge storage devices and spelling reform that has my interest.
I have completely fallen for the late-century American passion for efficiency experts, so once again will, at the risk of taxing Victorian Studies readers, offer up a post that features more American cousins rather than British ones. I had touched earlier in this blog on the invention of the vertical file. I’d like to pick up where I left off with a few remarks about the company the marketed the vertical file, the Library Bureau and the Bureau’s founder, that great promoter of “library economy,” Melvil Dewey (Classification 5). I’ve been dipping of late into Dewey’s “Librarianship as a Profession for College-Bred Women”, published by the Library Bureau, while Dewey was Columbia’s chief librarian.
The Library Bureau was run by Melville Dewey — or laterally, as he eventually spelled his name for for efficiency’s sake, Melvil Dewey then Melvil Dui — was born in Adams Center, New York in 1851, Dewey moved to Oneida, the age of 17 and then went on to study an Amherst college (Oneida, if I may offer an aside, was in its day, most famous for the free-love commune founded there in the 1880s, well after Dewey’s time. Practitioners of what they called Perfectionism, commune members turned their hand to silversmithing, giving birth to the Oneida flatware company. Now the makers of rather cheap cutlery, you may remember them from attempts to kit out your first undergrad apartment). He founded the Library Bureau, the American Library Association (complete with its own journal — the hallmark of academic seriousness), and proposed the Dewey Decimal Classification all in 1876. The ALA’s campaigns to professionalize librarianship were very successful. By the mid 1880s Columbia had started a School of Library Economy, and libraries were endowed at Cornell, Wellesley, and Harvard.
Dewey’s address, made to the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, is dedicated to reform. He launches with the virtues of the metric system and spelling reform (as the the spelling Dui suggests, English spelling was one of Dewey’s bugbears). If so many children had to leave school before they were properly literate or adept at using imperial measures, why not make English and system of weights and measures easier to learn, leaving children with more time to study other subjects?, he reasons. He makes his case using financial metaphors — literacy rates are like household income: the country is in need of more literate people that it creates, and so is left with a mounting deficit. If the people who came through the public education system were literate, then they could self educate. Public libraries would be the foundation of that self education, except, he argues, libraries are generally “unattractive, dark, damp, cold and ingeniously inconvenient” with a “mass of disorganized literature” on “shelves unlabeled” (Librarianship as a Profession 10). The Dewey Decimal Classification system is, of course, his solution to the disorganization problem. While men like Carnegie can assuage their robber-baron guilt by paying for library construction, it’s the Bureau that is best suited to furnish them (as indeed the Library Bureau did. Dewey outfitted many Carnegie libraries).
What is remarkable to me is the lock step of systems development and furniture sales: the Library Bureau’s furniture represented Dewey’s business, the Dewey Decimal Classification represented the zeitgeist –efficiency! systematization!– the justified the business. There’s a thing theory reading to be done here methinks. Just what was it about modern library furniture that would help with systemization and literacy reform? Do all systems need material, capitalist, or state support to get off the ground (the Library of Congress’ LCC’s system was designed in 1897)? If spelling reform had afforded Dewey the opportunity to sell more furniture, the othografic and retorical manovers of this blog might (yep, he kept the *ght*) be much altert.
Dewey, Melvil. A Classification and Subject Index for Cataloguing and Arranging the bBooks and Pamphlets of a Library. Kingport, TE: Kingport P, 1976 . Internet Archive. Web.
Dewey, Melvil. Librarianship as a Profession for College-Bred Women: An Address Delivered Before the Association of Collegiate Alumnae. Library Bureau, 1886. Print.
Eliot, George. Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. Ed. Gregory Maertz. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2004 . Print.
I am going to add another aside: the Dewey Decimal Classification system has, for me, always loomed large. My mother spent 27 years as a elementary school librarian. She retired this last September, but has lost nothing of her decimalsome acuity. “What is the number for lions?” my siblings and I will ask. “599.74” she’ll answer. “And Jupiter?” “Oh 500 is nature, and then 520s are stars and planets (525 is weather by the way and 593 is fish). Each planet has a decimal point — let me see, Jupiter? Jupiter? 523.45.”