Melvil Who?

The immortal Melvil Dewey returns from the afterlife to lecture fourth graders about his life and achievements.

“Melvil who?”

That had best be my non-librarian followers asking that question! Those of us in the field, women especially, owe a lot to this brilliant but eccentric man of the 19th and early 20th centuries. So, fellow librarians, please, all together now, let’s enlighten the others with a chorus of  “Melvil Dewey, the Father of Modern Librarianship.”

Of course you may have already guessed that Melvil Dewey was the creator of the Dewey Decimal Classification System, a way of organizing library books that is still in use today by 95% of school and public libraries in the United States. What is lesser known about Dewey is that he also opened the first professional library school at Columbia College and proceeded to admit women despite Columbia’s insistence that they attend a separate school. Dewey prevailed and librarianship became a respected career for educated women.

Melvil Dewey speaks to a rapt audience of fourth graders

Interesting stuff, but of what relevance is this to elementary school students?

One of my teaching goals is to create independent library users—students who can use the online catalog to direct them to the right resource, in most cases a book, and then to use library directional signs and labels to find the book on the shelves. Do they really need to understand the Dewey Decimal System to find the book? No. But I believe that an understanding of classification and sorting will help them better understand the library in general, and if we can have fun with it, all the better.

So, on the day that I plan to introduce the Dewey Decimal unit, I arrange to be called to a meeting during library class. In my stead, back from the dead (his system immortalized him, didn’t it?), is Melvil, pacing back and forth, perpetually consulting his pocket watch, treating the students dismissively and in some cases, outright rudely, as he lectures them about his life, his passion for efficiency and his greatest achievement–the Dewey Decimal Classification System.  You could hear a pin drop in my normally chatter-filled library. Students do try to catch him (me) up in his lie—but the closet thespian in me stays in character and barrels full steam ahead until his allotted time on earth begins to run out and he exits the classroom just in time for me to return from my meeting. (Think Viola Swamp and Miss Nelson).

Dewey points, rather rudely I might add, to students with questions.

Now the fourth graders are intrigued and questions are flying. Teaching the DDS in the coming weeks won’t be so dull and boring, after all. We’ll practice sorting objects into Dewey’s ten categories. We’ll learn about the subject matter of each section and try to figure out why Dewey grouped things as he did. We’ll play guessing games, make paper airplanes, recite poetry and study maps.

And, believe it or not, a little bit of the Common Core can be thrown into the mix. One of the standards for fourth grade math is:

Understand decimal notation for fractions, and compare decimal fractions

While I won’t actually be teaching decimals, as we use the DDS we will be seeing the relations between numbers with decimals and will have practice using the concept of Base Ten.

 To my librarian friends, let your lessons come alive and try an impersonation or two. I don’t have rights to this concept. I actually borrowed this idea from a post on the LM_Net listserv from October 1998 which itself was based on an article in School Library Activities Monthly, April 1992. I have refined it and made it mine, but it’s there for the sharing.

To the rest of you, the next time you head to the library and find everything you are looking for conveniently grouped together, say thanks to Mel. He’d probably be too busy to reply, or just rude enough to offer a grunt in return. But he’d appreciate it. Even curmudgeons are grateful for a kind word or two.

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10 Comments on “Melvil Who?”

  1. J. Reed says:

    I love Dewey, too! What a fun way to introduce both the man and the system

  2. Linda M says:

    Have you read Wayne Wiegand’s “Irrepressible Reformer”, his biography of Dewey? It is quite enlightening. The guy was even more complicated than popular culture attributes to him.

  3. You can be Melvil and the worm? Talented.

  4. Sherral Devine says:

    Almost every day I ask Spencer how his day was and what he learned and his responses are almost always about recess and the sports part of his after school care program. One day, before I even had a chance to ask him, he immediately launched into the whole story of Mrs. Kellner being called out of class and the visit from Mr. Dewey. He absolutely LOVED it! He was laughing the whole time he was telling the story. Inspired, Mrs. Kellner, truly inspired!

  5. […] housed in the (primarily) nonfiction section of the library we call the Dewey Decimal section. Melvil himself guest lectured to introduce his classification system to the students. Early on, there were […]

  6. […] (primarily) nonfiction section of the library we all know as the Dewey Decimal section. In fact, “Melvil” himself guest lectured to introduce his classification system to the […]


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