MAD LIBRARY SCIENCE!!!!! The story of Melvil Dui

Oct 29 2010 Published by under Miscellanea

It's MAD SCIENCE!!!!! day on Scientopia, so I thought I'd go a little steampunk-horror on you and talk a bit about the early far-from-halcyon days of American librarianship.

If you ask me (which you didn't), early American librarianship was an excuse for younger sons of Boston brahmins to proclaim that they were too doing something appropriately genteel and productive with their lives. Some of their names live to this day: Bowker, Barnard (as in "College"), Cutter (as in "number").

Yet the most famousest of them all wasn't a Boston brahmin. In fact, the Boston brahmins of the time spurned him repeatedly as just too gauche and moneygrubbing for words. His name? Melvil Dewey.

Er, Dui. One of the bees in Dui's bonnet was English spelling reform. He, er, didn't get very far with that one. But it was terribly mad-scientist of him. So was his dogged evangelism of the metric system—we all know how far that's gotten. He did invent and successfully shepherd to broad adoption a couple of monsters that stalk librarianship to this day: the Dewey Decimal System (never "Dui Decimal" for some reason), and the card catalog.

His idea of labor (in marked contrast to his oversea contemporary William Morris) was unsentimental to an extreme, even rather dehumanizing. If he'd had Igors or Oompa-Loompas, he would have loved them. He tried to start the first temporary agency for unemployed Boston-brahmin types, all in the name of "efficiency." (It didn't go well, leaving him in serious debt.) He started the first library school specifically for women, his argument being that women were nice and worked cheap. Of course there would be a man leading the library, because how could it be otherwise? but the worker bees could all be women, and that would be wonderful.

Here's the thing, though. Women swarmed all over sexist-pig Dewey, er, Dui. His college landlady financed one of his first ventures. He won his wife over the active courting of another man, and she stayed faithful to him even when he, er, didn't return the favor. There's all kinds of suspicious-looking stuff in his life history, often involving his secretaries. (If you're interested, I recommend Dee Garrison's Apostles of Culture. Very good book, very readable.)

I can think of only one explanation for all this.

Dui was a vampire. Of course.

I, of course, am a zombie:

2 responses so far

  • Zuska says:

    This is such a fun way to learn library history. Friggin' Dui. Why do the women always swoon for the cheaters? It is ever thus. Was watching Dr. Phil today with Z-mom and he was featuring d00ds who have a wife and a girlfriend, and insist that they are "faithful" to both of them. It's gotta be the vampire thing.

    Not sure how Dui would play on Dr. Phil. Doesn't sound like he'd be able to pull off the requisite teary asking-for-redemption segment of the show.

    • Dorothea says:

      Yeah, if there was anything Dui was, it's unrepentant. At least publicly. His private diaries apparently show a bit more nerves.