Citing a history of racism, anti-Semitism, and sexual harassment, the council of the American Library Association on June 23 voted to strip Melvil Dewey’s name from the association’s top professional honor, the Melvil Dewey Medal. The ALA Council approved the measure after a resolution was successfully advanced at the ALA membership meeting, during the 2019 ALA Annual Conference in Washington DC. The resolution states:
- Whereas the American Library Association awards the Melvil Dewey Medal to recognize librarians for achievement for recent creative leadership of high order;
- Whereas Melvil Dewey did not permit Jewish people, African Americans, or other minorities admittance to the resort owned by Dewey and his wife;
- Whereas he was censured by the New York State Board of Regents for his refusal to admit Jews to his resort, whereupon he resigned as New York State Librarian;
- Whereas Dewey made numerous inappropriate physical advances toward women he worked with and wielded professional power over;
- Whereas during the 1906 ALA conference there was a movement to censure Dewey after four women came forward to accuse him of sexual impropriety, and he was ostracized from the organization for decades;
- Whereas the behavior demonstrated for decades by Dewey does not represent the stated fundamental values of ALA in equity, diversity, and inclusion;
- Now therefore be it resolved, that the American Library Association (ALA), on behalf of its members, rename the Melvil Dewey Medal to remove Melvil Dewey's association with the award.
Best known by the public for creating the Dewey Decimal Classification System, Dewey was one of the founders of the American Library Association in 1876, and has long been revered as the “father of the modern library,” despite being ostracized from the ALA in 1906 because of his offensive personal behavior.
In an article last June in American Libraries, Anne Ford questioned why the ALA and the library profession still associates its highest honor with a man whose legacy does not align with the profession’s core values. This week, some 88 years after his death, Dewey’s #TimesUp moment appears to have finally come.
The move comes a year after the ALA Council made headlines at the 2018 ALA Annual Council for voting to rename the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, a prestigious honor that recognizes an author or illustrator whose books have made “a significant and lasting contribution to children's literature." The award is now called the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.
But while both moves reflect the ALA’s desire to better align the organization's honors with its core values, the moves differ in at least one crucial way. The Wilder decision came months after an ALA task force delivered a detailed report on the scholarly debate surrounding Wilder’s work, with ALA officials acknowledging that “Wilder’s legacy is complex.” Dewey’s legacy is not so complex—despite his professional achievements, his personal behavior was recognized to be abhorrent during his lifetime.
The council vote to strip Dewey's name from the ALA award was reportedly approved "overwhelmingly" and with no debate.
At press time, it was unclear what the next steps will be in terms of renaming the Melvil Dewey Medal, and ALA officials had yet to comment.
UPDATE: American Library Association officials told PW on June 25 that the resolution to rename the Dewey Award, which was approved by Council, will "now be referred to the ALA Award Committee for next steps, including discussion with the award’s sponsor. When there is a new name to announce, we will share that news with you at that time."