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A new children’s book, The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey (Calkins Creek, 2020) by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, is a colorful biography about the creator and implementer of the Dewey Decimal Classification system, who had a significant and lasting impact in libraries but ended his career in disgrace for his racist and sexist views.
From the time he was a boy in Adams Center, Jefferson County, NY, until he was a grown man, Melville Dewey took deep satisfaction in organizing things, from his mother’s chaotic cupboard to books in libraries. Dewey promoted efficiency by practicing simplified spelling (“Melville” became “Melvil”) and hacking off any letters that got in the way of pronunciation. He claimed doing this could shave three years of a student’s time in school (Jst think uv wat els u cud learn in thoz yrs!) And everything he did seemed to move at warp speed: a student clocked him speaking at 180 words a minute in a library lecture. His inventions and helpful applications of efficiency are still being applied in libraries in more than 135 countries across the world.
Dewey was also a virulent racist with a penchant for harassing women. A founder of the segregationist Lake Placid Club, he helped write the Club’s policy banning membership of Jews and African Americans. Dewey bought adjacent land to keep Jews from owning it, not far from the historic John Brown Farm and Timbuctoo where Gerrit Smith had help settle free black families before the Civil War. The New York State Board of Regents was pressured to remove Dewey as State Librarian in 1904, but refused, offering only a public rebuke (Dewey resigned in 1905). He also resigned from the American Library Association amid complaints of sexual harassment, racism and antisemitism.
Those biographical details make him a strange subject for children’s book. Despite the couching of Dewey’s attitudes in the title as “Often Annoying,” this little light-hearted book doesn’t address these flaws, leaving them to a few sentences in a separate “Author’s Note” that moves quickly to a bullet point recounting his accomplishments.
Alexis O’Neill is the author of several picture books including The Kite That Bridged Two Nations: Homan Walsh and the First Niagara Suspension Bridge, Jacob Riis’s Camera; Bringing Light to Tenement Children, and The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey. O’Neill received the California Reading Association’s award for making significant and outstanding contributions to reading throughout California and is an instructor for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. More information about her work can be found on her website.
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