Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Apostles of Culture: Dewey, Oh-so-OCD!

Dee Garison paints a dark, but vivid picture of Melvil Dewey in Apostles of Culture. Known mostly for the creation of the decimal system that revolutionized library organization, he is also remembered as a nervous man afflicted with what is now known as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. His megalomania, in addition to his unorthodox way of conducting business, made for numerous enemies and critics, and put him in the middle of a few scandals. Despite his polarizing personality and debilitating neurosis, Dewey is given credit in reshaping the library profession by opening its doors to women. What did Dewey see in this new workforce pool that had previously been dismissed or unnoticed by others? Two of his most devoted employees were women, one who stayed on for 18 years and another, until her death 34 years later. Why did these women, and many others, stand by Dewey, especially after the scandal of 1906? It is thought that the role Dewey offered women in libraries "gave them new power but did not challenge the traditional boundaries placed on their activities." What does this mean for women in libraries at this time?


Jennifer Gile said...

This may not be terribly relevant, but initially, I must say that I have a serious problem with Garrison's retro-diagnosis of Dewey as "obsessive-compulsive." Though I'm not going to attempt to argue that evidence of the symptoms aren't there, I will say that I think it's rather ill-conceived to diagnose someone with our current standards of mental health with a disorder that didn't even exist in the minds of Dewey or his contemporaries.

Anyways, to answer Heather's first question, Garrison offers many things Dewey (and others) saw in women as a workforce. Dewey was radical in his view of women as intellectually on par with men, but his liberal ideas ended at the limits of what was considered the "female sphere" at the time. Dewey simply helped to expand this female sphere to include certain gendered occupations, such as librarianship (and social work as discussed in part 4 of the book). Women were suited to this kind of work because they were sensitive, they could help make the library a more "homey" place for patrons, they were naturally maternalistic and upholders of morality, and they were willing to work for much, much lower wages than men otherwise their equivalents.

Dewey was also promoting women as a workforce during a time when it was becoming acceptable for women to become educated. Librarianship was an ideal career for educated women who actually wanted to do something with their education besides fill matrimonial and maternal roles. There were examples throughout the book of female librarians being well-versed in up to 5 or 6 languages, yet still willing to be paid poorly. How is that not a desirable workforce? (Especially for an institution where taxpayers would rather see their money going towards books rather than wages!)

Molly said...

I would just like to add more about Dewey and women's wages. I think that Garrison makes a good point when she says that Dewey did see women as intellectual equals, but not truly as equals. I think that he did probably like being the champion of the women's cause for education and a place in the work force because it automatically placed him in the position of being a leader.

ellen said...

Speaking in terms of contradiction, I think in some ways Dewey exemplifies a problem brought up in class concerning how the public library does not jive with capitalism.
Garrison spends a lot of section 3 describing Dewey's numerous failures within the capitalist sector. Yet, he was a huge instigator, and arguably somewhat successful in setting some of the primary foundations of today's libraries. Did Dewey's inability to succeed within the capitalist system transfer at all to the libraries?