Sunday, October 4, 2015

Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World

I received Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter as a Christmas present about six years ago, yet in spite of it being on my Christmas gift list, I hadn't read it until now. That is not unusual; all too often I buy or acquire books but don't read them until years later. And so I waited all this time to read such a touching story about the kitten who was tossed into a library dropbox in Spencer, Iowa one frigid January evening in 1988. Myron, the director of the Spencer Public Library, found the freezing kitten the following morning and nursed him back to health. I would say that most stories that are tear-jerkers open the reader's waterworks at the end, with the final pages a sobfest. While that was certainly true with Dewey, I was getting pretty misty-eyed from the very first chapter, when Myron described first seeing the kitten huddled in the dropbox. It broke my heart that someone could be so cruel to a kitten, and to hear how Dewey suffered. The dropbox wasn't even protected from the cold, as the slot had been wedged open, leaving Dewey exposed to the cold all night, as well as all the books falling through it and onto him.

After a meeting with the library board, the decision was made that Dewey could remain at the library. He would be the resident cat, which was not unheard of in libraries. A precondition of Dewey becoming the resident cat was for him to be declawed, which Myron did not write about. I only found out about it on the Spencer Library's website. I can understand how any mention of declawing could backfire on Myron's selfless benevolence. Myron wrote of Dewey's antics in the library and I laughed as I read about Dewey's fondness for empty tissue boxes, especially getting inside and wedging his head through the narrow plastic slit. Dewey loved to engage with library patrons and be petted and carried around. While there was some opposition to having a cat in a public library, the overwhelming response was positive. As a library employee myself, I took great pleasure in reading about Dewey's adventures among the stacks, riding around book carts and sitting and playing with patrons. I could picture it happening at my own library. Without anyone's foresight, Dewey ended up bringing the people of Spencer closer together. This little cat over the course of his nineteen years in the library got people talking to one another, and not just library patrons but the whole city. Dewey became the unofficial symbol of Spencer and as word spread about the friendly cat, the library received more visitors. Visitors came from across the US to see Dewey, and Myron had to cope with the ongoing demands for news stories in print and on television. Reporters and TV crews regularly ran stories on Dewey, and thankfully I was able to find many of the TV features on YouTube, including one from Japan.

In spite of the increase in local library visits that Dewey generated, this did not translate to an increase in circulation, as Myron cited the statistics that were typical of libraries in the twenty-first century:

"After the technology update of 1994, people began using the library differently. Before computers, if a student was assigned a report on monkeys, she checked out every book we had on monkeys. Now she did research online and checked out one book. Patron visits to the Spencer Library rose between 1994 and 2006, but only a third as many books were checked out. In 1987, when Dewey arrived [sic], it was common for the book drop to overflow with books. We haven't had a full drop box in a decade. Our most popular items for checkout are classic movies on DVD--the local video stores don't carry them--and video games."

Thus the library became more of a social hub with Dewey as its focus. People who had never set foot in the library started to come, and Dewey made the less frequent visitors come back more often. Dewey did not just tell the story of a library cat. Myron wrote of Spencer's economic troubles as well as her own personal and health issues which made the value Dewey provided for Spencer and its citizens all the more poignant. You felt for Myron as she battled breast cancer and you were heartbroken at the end when Dewey's health failed him at the age of nineteen. Shortly before Dewey's death, Myron described him:

"He was like a shadow moving among the guests, often unnoticed but somehow there at the end of a patron's hand each time someone reached to pet him."

A shadow that is still felt in the Spencer Library today. Dewey was a rapid read yet contained two errors, embarrassingly both on the same page: "I had sneaked a peak" and "Ten minutes late the crowd was shouting" (very easy to miss).

My heart was touched by Dewey, as well as by the life of the woman who saved him.

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