Honor, history and Melville Dewey

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)

The argument, “Don’t erase history” doesn’t work in this case, because there’s a difference between history and honors. Melville Dewey cannot help but figure heavily into the recorded history of the American Library Association, which he helped found in 1876 and then served as secretary for many years, plus two separate years as president. And whether you like him or not, he made major contributions to the history of American libraries as a whole — which are obvious considering that he developed the decimal system of classification that libraries use to this day.

The ALA is not trying to change history. Rather, when it recently took Dewey’s name off its top award, it was not a matter of history but one of honor. The ALA’s current leaders believe Dewey does not deserve this particular elevation.

When you put someone’s name on an award, you hold up that person as a paragon for others to emulate — personally, to some degree, as well as professionally. While the ALA probably wanted its top librarians to emulate Dewey’s zeal for education and efficiency, they did not want them to absorb his bigotry and, in the words of the recent ALA resolution, “numerous inappropriate physical advances toward women he worked with and wielded professional power over.”

This also isn’t a case of judging a historic figure by modern standards. He was deeply criticized for these things in his own time. Jewish people’s complaints about his anti-Semitism caused him to be pressured out as New York state librarian in 1905, and the following year, there was a movement in the ALA itself to censure him after four women accused him of sexual impropriety.

At the Lake Placid Club, which Dewey founded, Jewish people weren’t allowed on the property, and neither were African Americans, “except as servants,” according to the club’s rules. This discrimination was controversial at the time. For instance, the New York Conference of Mayors canceled its 1958 convention at the club because the resort discriminated against Jews.

“The Mayors Conference recognizes the gratuitous insult to a large part of the citizens of the state of New York implicit in the Lake Placid Club policy,” the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, a Jewish advocacy group, stated at the time. “When the mayors scheduled their convention they did not know of the discriminatory policy. Having learned the facts they now refuse to compound the insult by retaining the Lake Placid Club as their 1958 convention site.”

“Compounding the insult” — that’s really what this is about.

Awards are generally given out annually. Each year, a new person is honored to receive the award, and each year the person for whom the award is named is honored once again. Awards aren’t frozen in time, like recorded history is (or at least should be). They depend on our continuing effort to be renewed each time. The ALA sees itself as compounding an insult to women, Jews and African Americans every time it gives out an award named for Dewey. It doesn’t have to do that, and we think it was probably a good idea for it to stop.

It should be obvious that a person doesn’t have to be good to do great things. Many legends of sports, music, acting, art, science, etc., were not worthy of much respect for how they carried on in their personal and social lives. We should be careful in judging them, however, because we are all flawed, each of us in a unique way, and we all want to be judged mercifully for our own faults.

Yet if it’s unwise to demonize, lionizing people also has its pitfalls. There’s an instinct among us to raise up our heroes for universal praise, but when we put someone on a pedestal — literally, in the case of a statue — we set them up for the scrutiny of future generations. There’s a wave of such scrutiny happening now. It’s a balance between continuing honors and compounding insult, and every case is different.

Again, honors are not history. Just because Dewey’s name is taken off an award does not make him any less historically important, either to libraries or to Lake Placid. Modern Lake Placid was built around the dynamic resort he founded, at the same time as modern Saranac Lake was built around the tuberculosis sanatorium founded by Dr. E.L. Trudeau.

Rather, the fact that people are complicated makes it all the more important to preserve, organize and read history.