About the Holiday
Today, library lovers and readers of all kinds honor Melvil Dewey who was born on this date in 1851 and at the age of twenty-one revolutionized the way libraries organized their collections with an elegant numerical system that gave each book their own place on the shelf. Dewey went on to make more changes within libraries from whom they served to who ran them even to the amount of noise that was allowed inside—Shhh! To celebrate today, show your local librarians and library staff how much you appreciate them by sending them a thank you email or leaving an encouraging comment on their social media. To learn more about Melvil Dewey, kids will also want to check out today’s book.
The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey
Written by Alexis O’Neill | Illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham
Melvil Dewey is one organized kid! He spends his free time labeling his mother’s pantry and then the basement. He records all of his pertinent personal information and balances his finances in a ledger. And when he has enough money he heads to the bookstore—on foot—ten miles away. “Melvil loves books.” What do you imagine he buys there? If you guessed Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—unabridged version—you’re right!
At night before going to sleep, Melvil wonders what he’ll do with his life. He wants to do something valuable, something meaningful. But what? A fire at Hungerford Collegiate Institute in Adams, New York, where Melvil goes to school, gives him a new perspective. While rescuing books, smoke inhalation causes damage to his lungs. The doctors say he won’t live a year, but he proves them wrong. Now, however, he wants to word “efficiently. He wants to make the biggest difference in the world in the least amount of time.”
Noticing the large number of immigrants entering the country, Melvil decides he want to help them learn English and get an education as quickly as possible. Books would do that. After all, Melvil believes that steam power and electricity pale in importance to reading. First, though, Melvil needs to go to college. He chooses Amherst College and spends copious amounts of time at the library. “He even gets a job there.” But he notices that the library is woefully underused. Melvil can understand it. Instead of grouped by subject, the books—all 30,000 of them—are organized by shelf number, which requires frequent rearranging as new books are added.
Melvil loved libraries, but only rich institutions and wealthy people could afford to have them. Melvile believes in free public libraries for everyone. But as Melvil studies the problems of libraries, he discovers that no two libraries organize their books the same way. And some don’t even seem to bother with orgnainzation—they just stack the “books from floor to ceiling.” In addition to books and libraries, Melvil loves decimals. He ponders and muses, and then, suddenly, he has it! “He gets the idea of using numbers and decimals to organize library books.”
After extensive research, “Melvil assigns numbers to ten broad classes of knowledge. He divides these into divisions and the divisions into sections and subclasses. When displayed on the spine of the books and the books neatly tucked away on shelves, finding what you want becomes “totally efficient!” The trustees at Columbia College in New York invite Melvil to become their head librarian. Once installed, Melvil begins to think bigger. He wants to open a whole school dedicated to training librarians, and… he thinks women would be perfect for this profession. Their qualifications in his eyes? “…clear heads, strong hands, and great hearts. (Also, they will work for less money than men.)” But Columbia College’s trustees are aghast. Women are not welcome on their campus. Melvil is not to be dissuaded.
He secretly opens his school in a storeroom across the street from Columbia with twenty students, seventeen of which are women. He rushes through his lessons for best efficiency, then back at his job tinkers with the rules of the library. He instates a strict quiet policy—even going to far as to put rubber tips on chair and table legs and rubber wheels on book carts. Librarians and staff are given slippers to wear. And, of course, there is NO talking.
Melvil’s flood of ideas, constant changes, and insistent personality upsets people, but he barrels on. He becomes the State Librarian for New York, “organizes the New York State Library Association… provides books for the blind…and launches a traveling library system.” He even helps establish the Children’s Library Association, among other work. People were still divided in their opinions of Melvil, but one thing they all could agree on was that he fulfilled the wishes he had as a boy to “make a difference in the world.”
Extensive back matter includes an Author’s Note with an honest assessment of his successes and faults that in itself can prompt discussions of the legacy people leave behind, a timeline of his life, a discussion on other reforms he championed, a quick overview of how Dewey’s classification system works, and a list of selected sources.
No fusty, dusty story of the Dewey Decimal System this! Alexis O’Neill’s present-tense storytelling sweeps readers up in a whirlwind of the ideas, dreams, quirks, and persuasive, even steamrolling personality of Melvil Dewey. (And if you wonder about that unusual spelling, the answer is here too.) Her wry delivery masterfully straddles the divide between the numerous contributions he made to the library system and the anger his convictions and obsessions often caused. She invites kids into Dewey’s mind and actions as ideas spark, flame, and fuel innovation. The details O’Neill includes about the times, the pre-Dewey system of library organization, and Dewey’s hand in expanding the reach of libraries as well as his often abrasive personality gives adults and children plenty to unpack, discuss, and research.
Edwin Fotheringham matches O’Neill’s robust storytelling with action-packed illustrations that seem to sprint across the pages as quickly as notions raced through Melvil Dewey’s mind. Striking images—such as a speeding train hurtling into a tunnel made from an overturned book and later smashing through a mountain of books; the moment when Dewey is struck with the decimal-system answer to his problem; and a class lecture given at 180 words per minute—reveal the whirlwind pace of Dewey’s life. A two-page spread in which two profiles of Dewey—one smiling and one scowling—meet in the middle demonstrate the dual nature of this complex man and the contrasting reactions to his beliefs. Fotheringham brings the shotgun quality of Dewey’s thoughts to life with bold, emphatic typography that highlights concepts important to him while hinting at the conviction he had in his own ideas and solutions.
The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey is a compelling biography which can be read to inform children of all ages about a man who wished to make an impact on the world and succeeded in ways that nearly all people recognize. The book can also be used to stimulate important discussions about difficult and current issues with older children when used with the back matter and further research. The book will be fascinating and eye-opening for library lovers unfamiliar with the early history of libraries. It well deserves a place on school and public library shelves.
Ages 7 – 10 and up
Calkins Creek, 2020 | ISBN 978-1684371983
Discover more about Alexis O’Neill and her books on her website.
To learn more about Edwin Fotheringham, his books, and his art, visit his website.
National Dewey Decimal System Day Activity
Book Love! Word Search
There are all kinds of books for every reader. Find your favorite along with twenty favorite genres in this printable puzzle.
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