Local reaction to ALA’s Dewey decision mixed

The name of Melville (aka Melvil) Dewey, pictured here, has been stripped from one of the American Library Association’s top awards. (Photo provided by Lake Placid Public Library)

LAKE PLACID — The name of Melville Dewey, the creator of the Dewey Decimal System and founder of the Lake Placid Club, was removed from a top library award last month amid allegations of anti-Semitism, racism and inappropriate behavior toward women.

Locally, reaction to the news was mixed.

Dewey’s contributions to the modern library system and library sciences — whether it be his creation of the classification system many libraries still use, his pioneering of the first interlibrary loan system, or his work to open the first libraries in Albany for children and the blind — weren’t disputed.

What sparked debate was the American Library Association Council’s decision to remove his name from a memorial medal given out by the organization because he “does not represent the stated fundamental values of ALA in equity, diversity and inclusion.”

Dewey was one of the founding members of the ALA. He served as president for two years, and as secretary for 15 years. He was also the founder of the Lake Placid Club, an exclusive resort around which the modern village of Lake Placid was built.

Some feel the ALA Council’s decision is an effort to rewrite history.

“Everyone wants to rewrite history,” Lake Placid resident Carole Smith wrote on social media last week. “They’ll keep digging up dirt until there is nothing left but a blank slate! When everything good that a person has done is stripped away and replaced with indiscretions, we’ve given more importance to those than the good!”

Another Lake Placid resident, Alma Southmayd, noted that the ALA’s medal was for exemplary library work, not for character.

“So only perfect people can have awards named after them, good luck with that,” she wrote.

Patricia Coolidge wrote that Dewey’s “improprieties” don’t matter.

“He still made the library system what it is today,” she said. “Trying to erase history doesn’t change history.”

‘It was time’

Sara Kelly Johns is an adjunct professor at Syracuse University and a member of the New York state delegation to the ALA.

When the resolution came before the ALA Council, she cast a vote in favor of removing Dewey’s name from the award. The decision was one she said she didn’t make lightly.

That’s because before she was a state delegate, Johns was a school librarian at Lake Placid Middle-High School.

“Knowing the impact he and his son Godfrey had on the community — I definitely looked at (the resolution) with the eyes of, ‘Does this really have an impact on the Lake Placid community?'” she said. “It really doesn’t.”

Johns said Dewey was a visionary. He was ahead of his time.

“All of the achievements in his profession will stand,” she said. “No one is going to put aside the Dewey Decimal System because of his behavior or because his name was stripped from this award.

“It doesn’t downgrade the major achievements he made for libraries and certainly doesn’t affect what has happened with sports in Lake Placid.”

Godfrey Dewey, Melville’s son, was credited with helping to bring the Winter Olympics here for the first time in 1932. When the Olympics returned to Lake Placid in 1980, the Lake Placid Club served as the headquarters for the International Olympic Committee.

The Deweys, the Lake Placid Club and its Sno Birds — a group of winter sportsmen that oversaw the club’s winter activities — are often credited with helping to popularize winter sports in the United States. That includes bringing speedskating and bobsledding here.

“It’s a library award. The (people that receive it) are exemplars, they are the hardest working people, the most dedicated people in our profession,” Johns said. “They deserve an award that’s not named after someone with his personal and professional behaviors.”

Dewey’s legacy has been controversial for a long time. He was essentially ousted from his spot as state librarian in 1905 for the Lake Placid Club’s policy of not admitting anyone “against whom there is a physical, moral, social or race objection, or who would be unwelcome to even a small minority.” Under his leadership, the club barred Jews, people of color and people with tuberculosis from becoming members.

According to American Libraries Magazine, throughout the years multiple women have spoken up about what they perceived as Dewey’s inappropriate behavior toward women.

He was accused of subjecting his female personal assistants to “surprise squeezes”; of being excessively flirtatious with a colleague visiting Albany while he was state librarian; of kissing and touching an employee of the Lake Placid Club without her consent; and of making “unwelcome advances” on four female librarians during a 10-day ALA-sponsored trip to Alaska.

It was the latter, according to ALM, that resulted in Dewey being ostracized from the ALA for decades. In 1915, then-ALA President Mary Wright Plummer vowed to refuse to meet with him.

Johns said the ALA council’s decision to remove his name from the memorial medal was unanimous.

“There was not one person that spoke up against it. It was because it was time,” she said.

“Between the ALA’s focus on equality, diversity and inclusion, the Me Too climate and what we’ve always known about Melville and his behavior, there was no contention about this at all.”

‘Values change’

Though some people feel Dewey’s professional accomplishments should trump what he believed or did in his personal life, others believe the ALA Council made the right decision.

Amy Godine, a Saratoga Springs-based scholar and writer, is one of them.

“If Dewey’s brand of bigotry did no more than casually reflect the sort of thoughtless, default racism of his time, a case might be made for keeping his name on that prize. But was it casual? I don’t think so,” she said.

Godine has been writing about social, ethnic, black and migratory history for more than three decades. She said he was “an enthusiast of the spurious science of eugenics” whose club board was “packed with bigots who shared his views on race defilement and degradation.”

“He codified exclusionary policies in print,” she said.

“Other fancy Adirondack hotels employed black front-of-the-house staff at this time. Their owners made their choices. So did Dewey. Not to take his choices at least as seriously as he did does history no justice.”

Godine said no one would dispute that Dewey played a big role as a pioneer of library science.

“But there are other ways to flag his contribution short of blazoning his name on a medal. Public libraries stand for nothing if not a determined inclusivity. Does the name of Melville Dewey speak for this?

“I don’t think changing an award’s name does history an injustice. Values change. Altering the prize’s name honors that reality; it reflects our values now. Dewey stood by his — ferociously. We should stand by ours.”