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In an age of dramatic income inequality, scholars and nonprofit organizations may find themselves going to great lengths to develop relationships with the hyperwealthy. As historian Wayne A. Wiegand writes, that was true at the turn of the twentieth century, when Melvil Dewey avidly courted Andrew Carnegie.

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By the 1890s, Carnegie had begun donating significant sums of money to public libraries. Dewey had recently opened the world’s first library school. He went to Carnegie for support, but to no avail. Carnegie wrote that his contacts in the library world had “no difficulty in getting persons naturally adopted for this work.”

A decade later, Dewey tried again—repeatedly. His purpose, Wiegand writes, was to win funding for a permanent paid position for himself. In 1902, Carnegie agreed to donate $100,000 to the American Library Association (ALA). Dewey, an ALA cofounder, saw an opportunity to seek more funds for a national headquarters and a paid secretary, a job he saw himself well suited to.

Meanwhile, Dewey also launched another line of attack. Both he and Carnegie were advocates of spelling reform, the adoption of simpler, more logical written English. (Dewey was so committed that he had changed the spelling of his own first name, from Melville.)

In 1903, Dewey met with Carnegie and came away telling allies that the wealthy philanthropist had promised him $10,000 for a “vigorous campaign” for simplified spelling. Carnegie had a different impression of the oral agreement. Responding to minutes from the meeting that Dewey sent him, he wrote, “the vital point appears never to have been mentioned.” He said the two had agreed that Dewey and his allies would persuade the nation’s “leading educationalists” to agree to adopt the use of ten to twelve new spellings.

“Until that is done, I have nothing to do in the promises,” he added.

Dewey spun this as best he could, writing to his colleagues that “we have to humor his peculiarities.”

But, Wiegand writes, before the reformers could meet Carnegie’s conditions, Dewey’s stock in the education world plummeted. In January 1905, a group of Jewish New Yorkers publicized a ban on Jews at the Lake Placid Club, a private club Dewey had organized in upstate New York.

His situation only worsened in the summer of 1906. He had long been notorious among women in his field for uninvited touching and kissing, and some of them decided they had had enough.

“My advice is to keep perfectly quiet,” his colleague Florence Woodworth wrote to him in June. “It is thought you will be ‘cowardly’ and force the women to give their names which they say they are perfectly willing to do but which would of course be very unpleasant.”

Under threat of censure from the ALA, Dewey dropped his involvement in the organization and his efforts to win Carnegie’s money. The philanthropist did ultimately provide more than $100,000 to promote simplified spelling, but Dewey saw none of it.

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Libraries & Culture, Vol. 31, No. 2, Libraries & Philanthropy II (Spring, 1996), pp. 380-393
University of Texas Press