History Stories

The Father of Modern Libraries Was a Serial Sexual Harasser

Known as the Father of Librarianship, Melvil Dewey was the inventor of the widely used Dewey Decimal classification system. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
Known as the Father of Librarianship, Melvil Dewey was the inventor of the widely used Dewey Decimal classification system. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
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    The Father of Modern Libraries Was a Serial Sexual Harasser

    • Author

      Erin Blakemore

    • Website Name

      history.com

    • Year Published

      2017

    • Title

      The Father of Modern Libraries Was a Serial Sexual Harasser

    • URL

      https://www.history.com/news/the-father-of-modern-libraries-was-a-serial-sexual-harasser

    • Access Date

      July 17, 2018

    • Publisher

      A+E Networks

Adelaide Hasse was used to professional challenges. As a young woman, she struggled to be taken seriously by mostly male executive boards. She created a groundbreaking new way to classify government documents—and was disappointed when a male colleague claimed the credit. But armed with a new job at the New York Public Library, a better salary, and an ambitious new project, she finally felt optimistic about her career.

To pull off her newest plan, she’d need support, so she approached the leading voice in her field, Melvil Dewey, a man whose innovations made him a household name. He suggested they meet privately about her new project. Encouraged, she made her way to Albany, New York—only to find that he had arranged what amounted to a weekend-long date. It’s unclear what happened next, but Hasse departed hastily after being taken for a long drive by Dewey, and later spoke to colleagues about how offensive his behavior had been.

The story sounds like it could involve a Harvey Weinstein or Matt Lauer, but it didn’t. It took place in 1905, more than a century before the #metoo movement that exposed the sexual misconduct of America’s most powerful men. And the man in question was Melvil Dewey, the library pioneer whose decimal system of classification is still used in libraries today—a “protean genius” who raised himself from a poor farmer’s son to an icon during his lifetime.

Dewey is remembered today as an innovator who ushered American librarianship into the modern age. He helped invent the modern library, shaping everything from its organizational methods to its look to the roles of the librarians who were their stewards. But his pattern of sexual harassment was so egregious that women like Hasse dared to speak out against it, at a time when women were harshly judged for reporting sexual harassment. So many came forward that he was kicked out of the profession’s most prestigious association after an industry cruise in Alaska turned dangerous for women.

Books on a college library bookshelf. (Credit: Kickstand/Getty Images)
Books on a college library bookshelf. (Credit: Kickstand/Getty Images)

The pattern of abuse cost Dewey money and his professional reputation—and was brought to light by women whose careers he could make or break. And it was so pervasive that for decades, librarians risked their livelihoods to expose his behavior.

“For many years women librarians have been the special prey of Mr. Dewey in a series of outrages against decency,” argued Los Angeles Public Library head librarian Tessa Kelso, one of Dewey’s most outspoken critics, in a 1924 letter. Yet his behavior was often dismissed by male colleagues, including Dewey’s son, Godfrey, as mere “disregard of conventions and indifference to appearances.”

During the late 19th and early 20th century, Dewey translated a career in library supplies to a position as one of the world’s most influential librarians. As editor of The Library Journal, a cofounder of the American Library Association, head librarian of Columbia University and the New York State Librarian, he wielded considerable influence in the library profession. But he also garnered hatred and was largely ostracized from the profession he helped found for harassing women.

Ironically, many women owed Dewey their ability to work in the library field at all. Dewey insisted on admitting women to the male-only graduate program in librarianship at Columbia College, and lost his job in part due to that decision. Dewey knew the modern libraries he needed would require cheap, eager labor—and the generation’s few professional women, who were determined to prove themselves in a male-dominated world, were the perfect fit.

But though Dewey championed women in library science, he also seemed to think that harassment came along with the job—and his obsession with female students’ sexuality was so overt that rumors circulated he asked them to submit their bust measurements along with their applications. (He didn’t.) He surrounded himself with librarians—often spinsters—and insisted on entertaining them in private. And observers watched him repeatedly squeeze and hug his two live-in assistants—both women.

Low Library at Columbia University, New York, where Dewey was a head librarian. (Credit: Geo. P. Hall & Son/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images)
Low Library at Columbia University, New York, where Dewey was a head librarian. (Credit: Geo. P. Hall & Son/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images)

In 1905, Dewey took a cruise to Alaska with several members of the American Library Association. Its purpose was to unwind after a long ALA conference and plan the future of the newly founded American Library Institute. But for some of the women on board, it was no vacation. Dewey’s sexual misconduct was serious enough for four women to accuse Dewey of harassment.

Dewey was ultimately forced out of the American Library Association, an organization he had cofounded—a rare public consequence for one of the era’s many harassing men. Though Hasse was given the chance to testify against Dewey, she—perhaps scared to endanger the career she had fought so hard for—declined to do so.

As for Dewey, he claimed that “I have been very unconventional…as men [are] always who frankly show and speak of their liking of women.” However, he stopped short of calling his behavior harassment.

It’s still unclear exactly what Dewey’s offensive behavior consisted of—and because of the mores of the time, it’s not surprising that women were either afraid to come forward or hesitated to write down their specific accusations. But his behavior was so bad that he was characterized, in his words, as “a hopeless scamp that no self-respecting librarian [would] dare be in the same county with.”

Fifteen years after he left the ALA, Dewey was accused of inappropriate behavior with other female librarians. Tessa Kelso, a prominent Los Angeles librarian, helped organize a group of women to privately testify against Dewey. During that investigation, it surfaced that Dewey had supposedly harassed his own daughter-in-law to the extent that she moved out of his house. Dewey denied the accusations, claiming that Kelso and the other women were “old maids” who wanted to ruin his career, and the investigation was eventually dropped.

In 1930, more sexual harassment allegations surfaced when Dewey’s former stenographer accused him of assaulting her, including kissing her against her will in a taxi. Though Dewey initially dismissed the allegations as blackmail, the 78-year-old eventually paid $2,147—the equivalent of over $30,000 in 2017 dollars—to hush up the case.

Like many other powerful harassers, Dewey’s pattern of sexual abuse has been noted, but often portrayed as a side note to his life. He’s referred to as “one strange guy” or “compulsive,” but his misconduct is usually written off as secondary to his outsized contributions to the library profession.

Dewey’s pattern of harassment demonstrated his dismissal of the very women he claimed to want in the profession. His innovations helped make librarianship possible—but we may never find out how many women’s careers he ended or hindered in his quest for sexual power.

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