22. A Great Librarian’s Awful Side
Melvil Dewey was grabby, and one of his biographies referred to his “old nemesis – a persistent inability to control himself around women“. For decades, from at least the 1880s and until he was almost eighty-years-old and with one foot in the grave, Dewey persisted in a pattern of “unwelcome hugging, unwelcome touching, certainly unwelcome kissing” with female subordinates. When he opened a librarian course he taught at Columbia to women, Dewey required a photograph from each female applicant because, as he charmingly put it, “you can’t polish a pumpkin“. In 1905, during a ten-day trip to Alaska sponsored by the American Library Association, he made unwelcome advances on at least four prominent librarians, who complained to officials. In the ensuing furor, he was forced to resign from the ALA.
In 1929, when he was 78-years-old, Dewey had to shell out thousands of dollars – a significant chunk of change back then – to settle a lawsuit brought by a woman whom he had groped and kissed in public the previous summer. In addition to the awful sexism, Dewey was also an awful racist and awful anti-Semite. Per a policy he wrote, the Lake Placid Club banned black people and Jews. He even bought land adjacent to the club to make sure that no Jews bought it. That triggered a petition to the New York State Board of Regents to remove him as state librarian. The Board declined to remove him, but it did issue a public rebuke, and he resigned in 1905 as a result.